In 2003 Paizo Publishing pioneered a new concept in Dungeon
magazine: the adventure path. These were series of 11-12 connected adventures that were intended to span an entire D&D campaign from 1st to 20th level.
There had surely been campaign-long adventure paths before. The classic T, A, G, D, and Q adventures from Advanced Dungeons & Dragons similarly formed an adventure path, though it wasn't really put together until the super modules T1-4, A1-4, and GDQ1-7 were published in 1985-1986, and it never actually cohered across all three books. Similarly Wizards of the Coast published a D&D3E Adventure Path from 2000-2002, though it also was hobbled by poor connections among the adventures.
Thus it was really Paizo who put everything together (at least for D&D) with The Shackled City, the first of five adventure paths that they've written to date, all of which allow play through a large set of levels (1-20 for the first adventure paths, 1-15 for the later ones) and all of which have much more cohesive campaign-long story lines.
This is a review of Paizo's third adventure path, Savage Tide, which runs through Dungeon magazines #139-150. It's more specifically an AP review of the first three adventures in that path, "There is No Honor" (#139) by James Jacobs, "The Bullywug Gambit" (#140) by Nicholas Logue, and "The Sea Wyvern's Wake" (#141) by Richard Pett, plus a tiny bit of the fourth adventure, "Here There Be Monsters" (#142) by Jason Bulmahn.
For a more extensive AP of the adventures, please see D&D3.5: Savage Tide in the RPGnet Forums.
Adventure Path Warnings
The notion of an adventure path, at least in the more coherent form published by Paizo, is a neat one, because it offers the sort of campaign-long plot that's usually only possible in a home-brewed campaign. It's pretty hard if you're just running individual published modules to make everything fit into a truly consistent tapestry, but with an adventure path that's the de facto expectation.
However, there are some dangers and limitations of adventure paths as well.
- They're a big commitment. Surely, any campaign is a big commitment, but if you start a random campaign and then it ends a few months later, it's not really a big deal. However with an adventure path you're making a promise that you're going to give your players the full story. I'd guess that a typical 3E adventure path is going to run 35-50 sessions of gameplay. I figured it'd be a two-year commitment when I started Savage Tide, and I'm pretty sure that's going to end up correct.
- They're rail-roaded. In any RPG there's always a battle between plot and freewill, and adventure paths come down firmly on the side of plot. Your players have to do the things that will get them from one adventure to the next.
- There can be leveling problems. Because the adventures are built one upon another, you can sometimes run into problems with your characters getting behind or ahead of the intended levels due to TPKs, uneven player attendence, incorrect numbers of players, or any number of other factors. We've run behind so far, and thus I've introduced 4 weeks of home-brewed adventure in addition to the standard adventure path over the first 17 weeks. On the one hand, this means that you can't expect the adventure paths to be an easy plug-and-play run. On the other hand it also requires a superior understanding of the D&D rules to understand how XPs, CRs, and overall threat levels really work.
The Style of Savage Tide
First up, I'd like to say that Paizo generally has a superb graphic design sense and this comes out in everything they publish. The Savage Tide adventures in Dungeon magazine are all beautifully produced, with great artwork, good-looking maps, and lots of attention to detail, like portraits of characters. The only thing that really doesn't stand up are the occasional player handouts, which are mostly just printed out in a cursive font.
The other element of Style is theming, and here Savage Tide also does well. It's not the typical D&D adventure. Instead it delves into various pulp genres. In the first four adventures, reviewed here, we have zombies, other monstrosities, swashbuckling ship-board action, and giant dinosaurs.
How much of the actual feel of the pulp genre will carry over to your own campaign is up to the DM. For my game's part, the pulp stylings are mostly background. However, for a group more interested in pulp gaming, you could turn this all into a serious pulp campaign.
Overall, Savage Tide does a great job in both its graphics and its themes, so I've given it a full "5" out of "5" for Style.
The Substance of Savage Tide
There are herein some minor spoilers for the overall plot of the first four Savage Tides adventures.
Savage Tide is an adventure set in the outskirts of the world of Greyhawk. In the town of Sasserine, Lavinia of the noble Vanderborens is trying to recover her family's estate following the death of her parents.
The players are hired on, first to help get Lavinia's affairs in order, then to find her brother. As time goes on, they'll end up investigating pirates, defending the Vanderboren estate from attack, and eventually guarding a pair of ships headed down to a distant colony founded by Lavinia's parents ... on the Isle of Dread.
The first two adventures are pretty heavy on combat, as you'd expect from a standard 3E adventure. There are zombies, thieves, bullywugs, and pirates to be fought. There's some chance for tactical nuisance here, particularly in an extended raid on a thieves' den, but the first two adventures don't notably rise about the hack-and-slash stage of adventuring.
Nonetheles, they're well written for that sort of adventure. They're colorful--thanks largely to the pulpish stylings around mentioned--they're interesting, and when they do delve into actual "dungeons", they're dungeons that really make sense.
It's the third adventure, "The Sea Wyvern's Wake", which really shows off the adventure path's ability to offer up different types of stories. The Wake is a heavily character-oriented adventure that gives players the ability to interact with NPCs and form relationships. Even our group, which is pretty hack-and-slash heavy, got to know some of the NPCs from the adventure, and I really had a ball playing them.
There are a few problems that I'd raise with the adventure overall:
- Difficulty. Some of these adventures are very tough. We had a Total Party Kill (TPK) in week #2 due to nothing more than bad tactics on the players' part. Likewise we came dangerously close to another in one of the last scenes in the third adventure. Finally I was warned to tone down a scene right at the start of the fourth adventure by other DMs.
- Subtle Coherence. Overall the adventures cohere very well to date, but a lot of it's very subtle. The players have no chance of seeing the big picture connections thus far, and I have some concerns over whether they'll ever be able to connect up how these early adventures foreshadowed the stuff down the line. However, thus far the plot has hung together based on the thread of the Vanderborens, and that's been sufficient.
- Railroading. I already offered railroading as a general concern in adventure paths. It definitely exists in Savage Tide, but my players have generally been great about going along with things. However, I was really bothered by a bit of railroading at the end of the third adventure, where the players crash their boat no matter what happens. It's required if you don't want to entirely throw out the fourth adventure, but it's very clumsily done. My players continued to be good about accepting the plot when we went through this scene, but they noticed.
Overall, I think Savage Tide is a high-quality combat-oriented adventure with some potential to really expand into other types of adventures more centered on problem-solving and character interaction. There's also a neat big-picture story that I trust will give the adventure path the epic feeling it'll eventually need, though we haven't really gotten to it yet.
On whole I've given Savage Tide a "4" out of "5" for Substance.
Paizo publishes good-looking high-quality adventures. Thus far I've been 95% satisfied with the Savage Tide adventure path, and I've gotten good feedback from my players as well. For the DM who doesn't have the time to design his own adventures, look no forward than the Paizo adventure paths (though either the Shackled City hardcover or Pathfinder magazine is probably a bit more accessible than Savage Tide at this point).