Age of Ashes is a Hot Mess

I did not expect to be covering Pathfinder 2e again, but boy howdy have I got some things to say about the edition after having done my fair share of GMing and playing. This one is going to be about a game I recently played in, that has more or less concluded. First, a little bit about myself as both a player and a GM. I came into table top games via the electronic adaptation pipeline. Neverwinter Nights for the PC really got me hooked on the stuff. Persistent worlds in the same game is what actually introduced me to roleplaying though. As with most of these electronic adaptations, the plot, pacing, and story are all highly modified to play nice with the video game medium, and it took a lot of adjustment time to switch from being a roll player to a role player. An intentional heavy dose of GURPS also helped with that. This tidbit will be very relevant very soon. As a player I tend to be a stealth player, usually a Ranger archetype but anything with both good stealth and good scouting capabilities is my wheelhouse. I tend to also prefer that whatever class I pick for these roles is also good at taking out lone targets. I do not steal the spotlight frequently, though sometimes even I need a moment to shine, but I am quite content spending a few in game hours (tabletop minutes hopefully) scouting the opposition so that my party can plan their moves ahead of time and strike at their weaknesses, or just avoid the combat all together, which is my preferred outcome. GURPS combat is really lethal, and I like how it’s helpled me gear my play style towards completing the objective, weighing risks, and avoiding uneccessary lethal confrontation. As a GM I homebrew the vast majority of my games. I only lean on the default setting in brand new systems where it was made to operate in, which I hope makes sense. I have never once run an official adventure path, and I tend to avoid public groups. I’ve tried public groups a few times and it strikes me as a crapshoot of a calibre I can only imagine the dating scene to resemble. I play with, and GM for, a close group of friends, and I much prefer it that way.

Every so often I’ll make friends with someone who has never played or GMed before and they’ll be interested in doing one of those things. This is a story about one such GM. Very new at the game in general but really wanting to cut their teeth into GMing. They decided to run an adventure path for second edition Pathfinder called Age of Ashes. Being ignorant of adventure paths in general I thought this might be a great way for her to get used to GMing without having to plan nearly as much content as I did and keep it from being overwhelming. I congratulated her on her excellent decision making. Then….we played it.

Let me tell you, taking me back through a memory lane trip to my days playing Neverwinter Nights is not a compliment for any tabletop experience. The plot was very video game. Everything was very video game. The premise alone seemed quite strange coming from a history of homebrew. We were to answer a call for heroes for this city, apparently knowing full well they had very little to pay us with? It took an effort of metagaming to keep our interest in the first 5 minutes. Apparently, for way below market pay—I mean way below, we’ll get into that later—we were supposed to help a group of goblin squatters get their goblin squat hole back, some long abandoned fortress in ruin. This was supposed to lead our characters to some more consequential adventure, but nothing in game or in character told us that yet(this is where the metagame motivation is coming in already). Why did the goblin squatters need their goblin squat hole back so badly that a call for heroes was issued? Heck if I know, instead of actually providing time for the party to actually ask pertinent questions at the city hall meeting where this was being discussed, we’re given the “this is why you are playing this adventure” speech from the city council and while that’s happening a fire breaks out. We’re wisked away into a ‘scoot people who seem to have an int and wis of 3 each out of the fire’ mini-game that starts out fun but overstays its welcome. You might be thinking the newbie GM was just mishandling these things at this point, no, I read the adventure path, it uh…she did stellar honestly.

Oh, one thing about the group she was running. We’re all experienced tabletop players with none of us having below 10 years and some approaching 20, and we’re all doing our best to make her first GM session go great without worrying so much about our competing character motivations or what our characters personally want to do or will put up with. So we go along with this insane plot to the point that I don’t even remember how it was decided that we’d go evict the mean people who evicted the squatter goblins from their hovel hole.

I’m going to skip a lot of filler here because I want to focus on what we spent most our time doing in part 1 of this adventure path and how it upset both us and the GM enough that the newbie GM has home-brewed us out of this nonsensical hell. We spent two sessions, and two levels (the adventure path is really squirrel about this, never handing out enough xp to level by the time it utters the phrase “the characters should be level X before they tackle this other thing”) where the squatter goblins were living clearing it of a menagerie of monsters, the vast majority of which had no real logical reason to be there, or to just sit there waiting for us instead of attacking the other monsters that also really shouldn’t be there that they have no reason to get along with, that all managed to move in….since the squatter goblins were evicted? We’re talking a time scale of under a month for a Gelatinous Cube, 2 Kao Toa, Bugbear, some large lizard creature, a myriad of undead creatures designed to attack intruders (somehow none of the other intruders had run into these) to move in, and a literal caged bear that had somehow not starved to death. Again, that’s how long it took for all these things to move in, so quickly that we were to expect a pet bear hadn’t gone hungry. They don’t fight each other for some reason, or trigger any of the traps. After going through 8 straight rooms of ‘everything has darkvision and it all wants you dead’ the adventure path has us meet a heavily armed…and defiant npc with a halberd and for some reason didn’t expect us to determine that it was hostile and attack it. Like, we gave him a chance, an 8 foot tall murder gator with a greataxe barges in and next to him is someone with a crossbow raised at him telling him to drop his halberd that he is…wielding for no reason (this npc was apparently searching through old crates) and he just -ignores- them and then cries foul when a crossbow bolt takes 24 life off his total. Why was this NPC attacked by -nothing- else in the basement (it had an excuse for the undead but nothing else) and didn’t treat it like the combat zone it clearly was? Beats me.

As far as the treasure went, the module expected us to search every room, loot practically anything not nailed, including large and cumbersome paintings. Reminder, we’re trying to get some squatter goblins back into their home, but the module wants us to loot everything in sight to get paid….anything. We did the math, if we completely looted everything the module wanted us too, and left the squatter goblins that weren’t paying us very much to get them back into their home full of nonsensical arrangements of monsters with nothing but hooks and wires on their walls, we were able to achieve…..1/8th of our expected character wealth advancement. Cute. By the way, money doesn’t come from anywhere else.

Eventually we just said fuck it, GM included, and our constructing our own ‘catch up to expected character wealth adventure because buying crossbow bolts is getting hard to do now’ adventure. It painfully reminded me of NWN. Loot everything. Talk to absolutely everyone. Ignore any sense of urgency or take your mission any ways realistically seriously. Talk to the entire town, the whole thing. Say all the right words to them because the characters can see their dialogue tre….oh wait…the characters can’t see that? They have no reason to ask a lot of these questions of random strangers? Bummer. Too bad the end of the module is literally a pass/fail skill check to notice the entrance to the 3rd level of squattersville that you have to learn about by talking to…someone .

Most of this could be forgiven if it were fun, but the module had the GM and players repeatedly scratching their heads and wondering when it would be over. At one point we were talking amongst ourselves to figure out our next move when the GM exclaimed “this is stupid i’m not doing this”. The module wanted her to hide 2 medium hostile creatures in a 10 foot wide puddle in a basement. The module used the word puddle. It described a puddle. It was a puddle, in the middle of a stonework basement in a featureless room. That doesn’t scream contrived duck in a dungeon at all. They also had never encountered the undead traps or the other monsters, nor were they laying in wait for any of them, just us, whom they had no idea were ever going to show up, who we were, or what we were doing there, or would even have any idea that we were there to begin with. The whole thing is a hot mess written like a video game without a shred of care to the suspension of disbelief. It’s a beer and pretzels dungeon crawl that tries to masquerade as serious plot time while also handing out practically no treasure. Beer and pretzel romps plus no treasure make Homer go crazy.

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