On Difficulty Levels and Backstory Writing [Spoilers]


Strange Aeons


So I'm planning to run this AP, and though I've DM'd a couple times before, this will be my first time both running a published campaign and running a PF game (my other two times DMing were for a 4e game that lasted all of one session due to my inexperience, and a 5e campaign which fell apart due to issues outside of the campaign itself). So I'm trying to figure some things out, haha.

1) I'm allowing my players to use the 20 point buy, and there are 5 players total: a draconic bloodline sorcerer, a kitsune trickster rogue, a drunken master monk, a skald, and a player using Kobold Press's white necromancer. They're a fairly squishy bunch, but I did realize after reading a bit I probably may have had them start out too overpowered if they're using the 20 point buy and also having 5 players. Do you guys think there's any encounters I might have to adjust for that? Should I go back on what I said and have them all use 15 point buy instead? The campaign hasn't started yet, so I can technically tell them to partially remake their characters, though I'll also feel bad for that lol

2) I've had the players all tell me bits of what they'd like to include in their character's backstory, things I could play with, and things they definitely did not want. All have been fairly good about giving me bare-bones skeletons, with one player basically allowing me full reign (though he did throw suggestions around for what I could do) and most of the others giving me a little bit of early life shenanigans with lots of holes and agreed to allow me creative liberty to tie them in to the story. Question is, how interconnected (or not) should I make their backstories? I have one PC planned to be related to Lowls, another PC possibly being their basically-adopted sibling (their backstories lined up so coincidentally well I figured I might as well), and another possibly having a one-sided crush on the Lowls-related PC and that being tied to their motivation to work with Lowls. Similarly, I have a character who worked with Weiralai, and one who was sold by a slave by her- and was captured by the other PC. The captured PC may also have been experimented on by one or more of the other PCs as well. Is this a terrible idea/should I go back to the drawing board?


1) The point buy won't make a HUGE difference, but that plus five players will definitely skew things in favor of the pc's. Class selection and teamwork make a bigger difference, imo. This AP leans to the difficult side early on for the default of 15 point buy/four PC's, but in our experience Paizo AP's are written a tad too easy except for some specific encounters. In this book one, for example, the Nightgaunt does have the potential to be a killer, as do some of the early doppelganger fights, depending on dice rolls. Look on these boards for things other GM's have posted; The Order of the Amber Die guys had some good points regarding the Nightgaunt fight, as did many others. Lots of things have been written and ideas tossed around, definitely worth looking at.

2) The AP leaves things very vague regarding the PC backstories, giving some hooks mainly in book two, so you have a lot of freedom there. Having more interconnected stories might actually make the plot flow a bit better than as written. The assumption given in the AP is that the PC's were slaves sold to Lowl by Weiralai; I ignored the slave part entirely and only one of my PC's actually had a connection to her. Feel free to do whatever, just be sure to look ahead and pay attention to how the various plot hooks (mainly throughout books one through three) will work in order to maintain a coherent plot. And plant the seeds of Ariadnah early and often; the AP doesn't do a great job of having her presence felt between a few mentions in book one and her final boss appearance in book six.


RH wrote:

1) The point buy won't make a HUGE difference, but that plus five players will definitely skew things in favor of the pc's. Class selection and teamwork make a bigger difference, imo. This AP leans to the difficult side early on for the default of 15 point buy/four PC's, but in our experience Paizo AP's are written a tad too easy except for some specific encounters. In this book one, for example, the Nightgaunt does have the potential to be a killer, as do some of the early doppelganger fights, depending on dice rolls. Look on these boards for things other GM's have posted; The Order of the Amber Die guys had some good points regarding the Nightgaunt fight, as did many others. Lots of things have been written and ideas tossed around, definitely worth looking at.

2) The AP leaves things very vague regarding the PC backstories, giving some hooks mainly in book two, so you have a lot of freedom there. Having more interconnected stories might actually make the plot flow a bit better than as written. The assumption given in the AP is that the PC's were slaves sold to Lowl by Weiralai; I ignored the slave part entirely and only one of my PC's actually had a connection to her. Feel free to do whatever, just be sure to look ahead and pay attention to how the various plot hooks (mainly throughout books one through three) will work in order to maintain a coherent plot. And plant the seeds of Ariadnah early and often; the AP doesn't do a great job of having her presence felt between a few mentions in book one and her final boss appearance in book six.

Yeah, as it's most (if not all, I think) of the players' first times playing Pathfinder, I was worried that Strange Aeons would be a difficult first campaign to go through, so my initial thought was to give them a bit of help. Then I actually read through the boards and saw how most people ran 15 point buy and that the campaign is made with 4 players in mind, and I became worried that maybe I'd made the difficulty too easy on them. Thankfully, I did emphasize not building very optimized characters, and if anything the extra points seemed to have mostly seemed to make them more rounded as characters from a roleplay/story/narrative perspective. Will definitely still look through the threads and see if there's anything in particular that might need beefing up.

As for 2), I wasn't sure if having their backstories so interconnected might prove to have issues either between the party members or narratively. I'm unfortunately still not a very experienced DM, so I don't really have much to draw on about player-to-player and player-to-DM interactions, and having to make the backstories for the PCs seems like it could backfire spectacularly. That could just be my own anxieties speaking, however.

Ariadnah is like, barely mentioned in Book 1 other than a few smatterings, and other than researching in the library she doesn't seem to come up at all for the PCs to really latch on to anything. She's mentioned more in Book 2 at least, so if anything it'll be easier to work her in then.

Speaking of planting seeds earlier, would it make sense to bring Kaklatath in earlier as well? One of my players picked "Formerly Mind-Swapped" for their campaign trait, and while it's a very interesting trait for sure, I don't really know how to work it into the story, and Kaklatath's sudden appearance at the very end of Book 3 feels almost shoehorned in. Knowing the player who picked that particular trait, they'd probably be wondering the whole time when their whole mind-swapped shenanigans would come into the story and it feels bad to not mention it at all until halfway through the AP.


As far as the backstories go, you have time before having to reveal them fully, so you can build them slowly if you need to. You can also integrate things that come up during play too, and look awesome when it looks like it was all planned from the start!

There are plenty of places for you to plant various seeds, especially in book one (in their dreams), and in book two (with townsfolk chatter). I would definitely include the Yithian in your mind-swapped pc's dreams in book one, that's a perfect place to do it. Maybe have Kaklatath reach out periodically in that pc's dreams even later. Read Lovecraft's Shadow out of Time novella if you haven't, that has tons of things you can mine for a pc who has been mind swapped in the past. This AP allows for some really strange events to happen as dreams and even time itself can be a little wacky.


The point buy DOES make a difference. You should change it immediately to 15 point builds, as the adventures are designed for, or you will have to adjust your CR for every encounter. There's no need to do a lot of extra work when your players can just start at the proper point build.


The last five years of the PC's backstories are spoken for. They can design the rest of their backstory or none of their backstory, if prefered. They just have to leave the last five years blank for the adventure to fill in, as it details the time they spent working in the service of Count Lowls.


It's up to you as the GM to decide how to best marry your PCs' motivation and backstories to the adventure. You have to decide why they were sold to Lowls by a Denizen of Leng (five years ago) and why they decided to follow the orders of an unscrupulous madman over the past few years. Some may have been going along with the activities for other reasons, while some might have been plain evil.

When I ran this, I used Winter to tell the PCs that this was their opportunity to repent from the past lives and start anew.


PFRPGrognard wrote:

It's up to you as the GM to decide how to best marry your PCs' motivation and backstories to the adventure. You have to decide why they were sold to Lowls by a Denizen of Leng (five years ago) and why they decided to follow the orders of an unscrupulous madman over the past few years. Some may have been going along with the activities for other reasons, while some might have been plain evil.

When I ran this, I used Winter to tell the PCs that this was their opportunity to repent from the past lives and start anew.

I've decided I'm not going to completely go with the idea they were sold into slavery by Weiralai; one of them was sold as a slave, another one worked with her but switched over to working for Lowls for his own reasons. The rest also freely chose to follow Lowls though have no relation to the slaves or slavers, and I think that'll make it more impactful when they realize they weren't as good people as they thought they were as they chose to serve and follow a madman, as opposed to being forced into it.

As much as I want to tell them to use the 15 point buy instead, they're all pretty much done with character creation at this point and telling them to recalculate stats feels like making them rebuild most of the character all over again, and I don't want to do that to them. I'll probably just suck it up and see how the first few sessions go and rebuild encounters if need be. More work for me, but it's not something I dislike doing anyways lol.


On second thought, I might be able to convince them to use the 15 point buy, though I still feel pretty bad and am considering sort of compensation to them for messing up. Perhaps give them an extra skill point, trait, or increase a save by 1? Or maybe even something else entirely? I was considering an extra feat but that feels like it could be too much :x


If you explain why they need to change, they will usually be ok with it. You can give them an extra hero point, if you want to give them something.


Also, above all other adventure paths, this is the one that needs to be the most challenging to make it more like a Call of Cthulhu game. This is one not to be run at high fantasy, but at a level where the PCs are constantly challenged. A horror game filled with superheroes is not the same.

Silver Crusade

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Pathfinder Adventure Path Subscriber

You can perfectly fine run this AP with high-powered heroes. Pulpy, two-fisted guns akimbo take on Call of Cthulhu works fine in Earth 1920s (see Pulp Cthulhu from Pelgrane Press and other non-purist takes on Mythos) and it works just as well with fireballs and wizards.

Frankly, the notion of protagonists being powerless against the unknown is one of the core ideas of "purist" Lovecraftian horror - and is next to impossible to convey in D&D/PF, which are heroic fantasy superhero genre. A mid-level D&D hero has seen and killed things which would drive a CoC investigator insane. Your best bet is going more "horror Indiana Jones" and having people drop dynamite, I mean, fireballs down a dhole's maw while dangling from an airplane, I mean, dragon.

Matter of fact, that's how I'm running Strange Aeons, we're just past book 3 and everybody is having a blast. The horror is there, but it's more of campy dark cults summoning tentacles variety and less of the universe is incomprehensible and we're just specks of dust type.


Gorbacz wrote:

You can perfectly fine run this AP with high-powered heroes. Pulpy, two-fisted guns akimbo take on Call of Cthulhu works fine in Earth 1920s (see Pulp Cthulhu from Pelgrane Press and other non-purist takes on Mythos) and it works just as well with fireballs and wizards.

Frankly, the notion of protagonists being powerless against the unknown is one of the core ideas of "purist" Lovecraftian horror - and is next to impossible to convey in D&D/PF, which are heroic fantasy superhero genre. A mid-level D&D hero has seen and killed things which would drive a CoC investigator insane. Your best bet is going more "horror Indiana Jones" and having people drop dynamite, I mean, fireballs down a dhole's maw while dangling from an airplane, I mean, dragon.

Matter of fact, that's how I'm running Strange Aeons, we're just past book 3 and everybody is having a blast. The horror is there, but it's more of campy dark cults summoning tentacles variety and less of the universe is incomprehensible and we're just specks of dust type.

This honestly feels like the direction I'm most likely to take for the campaign myself; I'm not particularly versed in Lovecraftian lore, and from what I know of the players (who I've gamed with on and off for a few years now and RP'd with for over a decade now) they're more likely to treat the campaign as an adventure with horror elements as opposed to CoC-esque shenanigans.

I've already told them to redo their ability points, got a lot of grumbling from everyone but thankfully they were all fairly understanding. The lot of them are much, much squishier now and I can't help but feel some of their early encounters will be fairly swingie, though I suppose that's just how early encounters be sometimes.


Gorbacz wrote:

You can perfectly fine run this AP with high-powered heroes. Pulpy, two-fisted guns akimbo take on Call of Cthulhu works fine in Earth 1920s (see Pulp Cthulhu from Pelgrane Press and other non-purist takes on Mythos) and it works just as well with fireballs and wizards.

Frankly, the notion of protagonists being powerless against the unknown is one of the core ideas of "purist" Lovecraftian horror - and is next to impossible to convey in D&D/PF, which are heroic fantasy superhero genre. A mid-level D&D hero has seen and killed things which would drive a CoC investigator insane. Your best bet is going more "horror Indiana Jones" and having people drop dynamite, I mean, fireballs down a dhole's maw while dangling from an airplane, I mean, dragon.

That's a great way to run this. It's a Call of Cthulhu THEMED adventure, and getting the low-powered, fragile character feel in Pathfinder is really tough without changing a lot and adding many limitations to the players. Even the Player's Guide talks about this, and how the themes don't allow the GM free rein to kill the PC's. It SHOULD be challenging and a little unforgiving toward the players, but overall survival is assumed.

Silver Crusade

Pathfinder Adventure Path Subscriber

There's more than enough personal horror (Who really am I? What happened to my memories? What are those flashes and thoughts?) that's smartly included in the AP as it can hit PLAYERS and their CHARACTERS regardless of the fact that PCs are basically superheroes at level 5 and minor demigods at level 15.

Besides, StragEons isn't your typical Dagon and Innsmouth and Cthulhu rises Lovecraft story. It plays off the less tentacly cosmic themes of Dreamlands and Carcosa, which also both lend well to blending with D&D-style fantasy.

Also, I've goofed above - Pulp Cthulhu is by Chaosium themselves, what Pelgrane did was publish Trail of Cthulhu (my fave system for it) which explicitly tells you the difference between "pulp" and "purist" types of play and has several books geared towards more adventure-y kind of play.


One may be "perfectly fine" with running Strange Aeons as another standard D&D adventure, as I'm sure there are plenty of GMs on this forum that miss the many subtle potentials for horror throughout.

It just makes the entire adventure a wasted opportunity to play a proper survival horror adventure using Pathfinder.

Tables and games vary, so go with what works for you.


Having run only in search of sanity but read (and fallen in love with) all six books, I don't think that hard combats are equivalent to horror in Pathfinder. Don't get me wrong, if your party is stomping every encounter and cracking jokes about how easy it is, you're probably going too easy.

But I've found that as a player the scariest stuff isn't monsters but the stuff you can't stab, shoot, or fireball. And that's what's so great about Strange Aeons: sure you can kill monsters, foil cultists and exorcise haunts but they're all symptoms of a growing horror that you can't kill, can't reason with, can't even think about without slowly losing your mind.

That theme runs throughout the whole AP. Not every encounter is horror oriented, which is good. You need your players to have a false sense of security before you plunge them back into the madness.

Of course, you could run the campaign as a Cthulu punching arcade and it is your table, but I think that loses some of the original intent. To each their own I guess.


Artofregicide wrote:

Having run only in search of sanity but read (and fallen in love with) all six books, I don't think that hard combats are equivalent to horror in Pathfinder. Don't get me wrong, if your party is stomping every encounter and cracking jokes about how easy it is, you're probably going too easy.

But I've found that as a player the scariest stuff isn't monsters but the stuff you can't stab, shoot, or fireball. And that's what's so great about Strange Aeons: sure you can kill monsters, foil cultists and exorcise haunts but they're all symptoms of a growing horror that you can't kill, can't reason with, can't even think about without slowly losing your mind.

That theme runs throughout the whole AP. Not every encounter is horror oriented, which is good. You need your players to have a false sense of security before you plunge them back into the madness.

Of course, you could run the campaign as a Cthulu punching arcade and it is your table, but I think that loses some of the original intent. To each their own I guess.

Oh hai

Unfortunately for my group, it'll be fairly difficult to run it really as a horror campaign due to the limitations of using Discord+Roll20 (due to nearly everyone being from different parts of the world). I really, really do like a lot of the things in the AP and would like to play up the actual horror stuff as much as I can, but at the end of the day I'm not confident how well I'll be able to deliver that and how well the players will take to it. If anyone has any suggestions on how to effectively run this game online as opposed to in-person (especially regarding like, setting the mood/atmosphere/etc and especially how to run that opening dream sequence with the Tatterman) I'd definitely like to hear them.

And before anyone might say they don't think Strange Aeons is the best adventure to run for the group, I actually gave my group several choices for AP and we narrowed it down to 3, and in a pretty much unanimous vote everyone voted for Strange Aeons based on the synopsis and me telling them what I knew of the APs.


As a believer in balanced encounters (and less prep in rebalancing everything), I always go the intended 15 point buy. If you're using standard experience points it works out great with 5 players as well because on average, the players should be a level behind overall and having the 5th player balances out the difficulty.
This worked perfectly for our prelude run of Crypt of the Everflame.
I also have a Max, 3/4, 1/2 HP house rule for their first three levels. Max at level one, 3/4 at level two if they roll poorly, and at least 1/2 their HD at level three if they roll poorly. This helps with low level survivability.
YMMV as usual.

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