Pathfinder Adventure: Hero Worship
I had an idea a while back about why I don’t like boxed adventures. A tabletop RPG needs to be fun for reasons that a computer RPG can’t do better. This means it must emphasize social elements, open-ended play, and creative collaboration. As such, the main content that a boxed adventure needs to provide is the set up for these things, and ways to resolve the many complexities that can emerge from this. This is more an art than a science, so I’ve decided to write a one-off adventure for Pathfinder and share it with all of you. Tell me if you think this is enough to run a satisfying game. If it is, I will share more of these.
Explanatory notes are in italics.
Premise: The players are all members of an eccentric, isolated, small community. The town has almost no contact with the outside world. It turns out that, over the years, their church’s beliefs have slowly gone from eccentric to outright heretical, and some inquisitors have come to town to correct the problem. As the all important Festival of Fraternity approaches, the people of the community are divided over loyalty, faith, and freedom. As the threat of violence escalates, the best protection for those who wish to remain out of it is privacy: a phenomena lacking in both small communities and the modern world alike.
Set Up: Each player makes a level 1 Pathfinder character. Each player must specify their most important relationship within the community. Perhaps they have a child, a dear friend, a parent, a business partner…
The reason the relationship is important will end up saying a lot about the character. This is all contained within implications and subtext, however. Compare the kind of characters that would have their most important relationship be with a goldsmith and the kind of characters that would have their most important relationship be with a local shut-in. A nice side effect of this is that players will want to fill in the blanks themselves; they don’t like to leave everything to just implications and subtexts. This results in the players creating characters as complex as their interest and ability allows, while still establishing an easy minimum requirement for character detail.
This section features details that have minimal impact on the immediate plot, but can have a big impact on how the plot is connected either to players or the setting as a whole. Adjust anything in this list to make it relate to players, or the broader setting you wish to use. I have made choices for each of these myself, but if you are running it and have made changes for your characters or setting, just use the Find function in your document editor and make the changes as necessary.
1. A demon-lord, arch-devil, or evil deity: Graz’zt
2. The chief deity worshipped by the locals: Illmater
3. A social problem for the cities: Prejudice
4. A material problem for the cities: Squallor
5. A positive social trait for the cities: Artistry
6. A material benefit in cities: Food
7. Surprising Religious Theme: Quietism
Pacing for Game Style: The set up I have here conforms closely to most RPG set ups. It presents the information before requiring decisions from the players. This facilitates character development, and can help make the setting come alive as you see fit. You may wish to alternate between scenes from Part 2 and Part 3. This facilitates conspiracies and sideplots. If some players are secretly backing the inquisitor, or trying to secretly convince other PC’s NPCs to back the losing side, this can lead to some entertaining PVP conspiracies. Some players may want to jump straight to the final confrontation with the inquisitor in Part 4. This is acceptable, but the inquisitor is made difficult enough that the PCs have only 50% chance of winning unless they get townsfolk on their side.
I don’t create flavour text for any locations because I feel quite strongly that the GM has to be prepared to improvise these things. The locations ought to be adjusted to suit the aesthetics and themes of the characters, story, and setting. It should also be adjusted to suit the mood of the gaming group on a day-to-day basis; you will not be able to maintain a moody, noire ambiance if everyone is giggly. Since, as the GM, you will at most be in control of the story and setting (and, even then, just barely) you must be prepared to improvise an appropriate description while still communicating all the details that are essential to the plot. If you are like me, you can use formulas to make this easy. I am still quite fond of “the hemingway technique” in my games. As such, I will only give the necessary details here. For example, I will say “the scene takes place in a chuch,” and not “the church is small, dark, and creaks in the wind. Vines grow unkempt up the walls, but it still is warm and welcoming inside It feels private, like a secret from a friend.”
Part 1: Firstday Mass and the Arrival of the Inquisitors
Read to the players:
Firstday Mass is a religious festival practiced at the start of every week in honour of Illmater, and you are all in attendance. Regardless of how devout your characters are, they all attend firstday mass. It is the main social and political function in town. After the essential rituals are complete it becomes a forum for public discussion for all issues that concern the town, from essential public works to the comparatively trivial concerns about recreation. This time there is someone new here, far in the back: a true rarity. Murriaxa, the local minister, passes the wooden cup to (pick a player), while eyeing the stranger in the back suspiciously. What do you say or do before you pass it to the next in line? (After that player says or does their thing, ask the next player what they do in response, and encourage them to make their own contribution. Continue until each player takes a turn.)
This scene introduces the main conflict. It gets the players to participate in platform building so they feel a bit invested in the religion of their community. Whatever elements the players introduce will be heretical. The name Murriaxa is supposed to imply masculinity (because it sounds like Murry) and femininity (because it ends in an unstressed A). The GM can decide which gender to give the character in order to create better gender parity (ie. if all the PCs are female, make this NPC male).
As you complete the opening ritual, Murriaxa says “Thank you (character name). As you all know, at the upcoming festival of fraternity-” the small stranger in the back stands up. “I have seen enough!” he shouts, interrupting Murriaxa. “Rumours have spread of your terrible heresies. No more of this!”
This scene is to be roleplayed. If threatened physically, he will back down.
Gerrax the Inquisitor. Human male. Defining social traits: accusing, aggressive. Goal: Educate the locals about the “correct” way to practice their beliefs. Virtues: Helpful. Vices: Intolerant and Extreme.
GM’s goal for this encounter: have Gerrax insult all the ritual components introduced by the player, and claim that the upcoming Festival of Fraternity celebrates Graz’zt. He says that he will not allow the Festival of Fraternity to occur. The festival of fraternity occurs in a number of days equal to half the number of players.
I feel that, for the sake of roleplaying NPCs, it helps to define one or two traits that will easily be seen during social interaction. For the sake of the NPC’s decision-making, they need a goal. Finally, giving them virtues (character traits possessed by a “good person”) and vices (character traits possessed by a “bad person”) helps round them out, just in case it matters.
The threat that he will not allow the Festival of Fraternity to occur is the most important thing for him to say! It imposes a time limit. If the players do not resolve this dispute by the Festival of Fraternity, there will be imminent violence!
What if the players just kill Gerrax? If the players just kill him here, Murriaxa will be shocked that they killed a man in cold blood. Murriaxa will contemplate that perhaps there is something wrong with their society, and as penance the players must investigate just how far they’ve fallen by learning about the outside world. The inquisitor has henchmen that replace him in all later chunks of the story.
Explicitely stating their mission. If the players aren’t the sort to take much initiative, Murriaxa may need to specifically tell them their mission: to learn about the outside world, how their traditions deviate from the outside world, and decide how to proceed with the inquisitor in time for the festival.
Part 2: Learn about the outside world and local traditions
The GM needs to divide the PCs relationships into two categories: ones that create NPCs with frequent contact with the outside world, and those who are experts in local traditions. Those who do not shall be made either experts in the local traditions or very proud participants. Highly educated people fit into both categories, and are special because they could have been a person of importance or prestige in the outside world, and choosing to be a member of an eccentric and isolated community
NPCs who have travelled extensively: craftspeople (because historically Guilds had their apprentices spending time travelling all over the place working), traders, and anyone with a military background (which includes mercenaries and bandits). Think manufacturing and various governmental services.
Experts in the local tradition: Religious authorities, artists, shut-ins, farmers, hunters, and anyone who lives off the land. Think primary industry and culture industry.
Write down what each player did with the cup that was being passed around, and consider how the NPCs would explain why this would either be heretical, offensive, or just a bit different from what is allowed in town. Content about the Festival of Fraternity is provided, however.
Read to the players: You know of the following people who can tell you about the outside world: (list off the NPCs). You also know of the following people who know enough about your local traditions to help understand the details of the heresy accusation: (list off the NPCs). Who would you like to visit first?
At this time it will be much easier for the GM to do a quick doodle of the town and surrounding area. Place the river where you need it. Make a road leading out of town to an open field where the festival of friendship will be located. However, using visual supports is ultimately optional.
Visit in town:
When the PCs visit the NPC in town, they find a mob outside the location. The mob is a group of locals who are very angry that this NPC hosted the inquisitor for a time. Gil, the leader of the mob, addresses the PCs with rhetorical questions as part of their speech “And what do you think? Should we let this traitor stay among us?” The crowd shouts “no” enthusiastically. What do you do?
combat: Make most of the crowd just run away, but Gil and his sister Liora stay fight. Gil is a melee warrior with a Greatclub, Liora is a ranged warrior with a longbow. They are level 1. Both have weapon focus in their weapon of choice, Gil has Power Attack, and Liora has Point Blank Shot.
I have some stat distributions and the NPC Class Charts memorized, so all I need to decide is level, feats, and equipment. You could build them in more detail yourself. If this is too much for you use goblin warrior stats, but increase sizes to medium. As a short version (so you don’t need to refer to weapon size and damage charts) you can increase small size to medium by applying this to their base stats: -1 AC, -1 to hit, +2 damage.
skills: This whole problem can be solved with a few charisma skills. So long as the players can continue to think of new arguments, tricks, or ways of being scary they may continue to use related skills. Don’t let them repeat things after they have failed. If the attempt seems reasonable, the DC is 15. If the attempt seems implausible but still not too bizarre, the DC is 20. Give bonuses of +2 as circumstances require, as all D20 GMs do.
I keep these DCs more or less static throughout entire campaigns. In this way, it is useful for players to have low ranks in skills. High ranks in skills is still useful for contested checks or truly outlandish feats. I figure if a level 10 fighter can save a kingdom by killing a dragon, a character at level 10 with maxed ranks in diplomacy should be able to save a kingdom by convincing warmongering generals that peace is better for everyone. Two side effects of this are: that I need to give a significant amount of control over the plot to the players, and that I need to improvise well.
RP: The personalities of the various members of the mob are not sufficiently defined for the players to really engage with this situation in this way. If they happen to engage with the crowd in a way that forces you to define Gil or Liora’s personality more fully, that’s okay. Just improvise, make notes, and feel free to bring them back later.
My assumption is that, since Gil and Liora is presented as an obstacle that blocks their path to the NPC, the PCs will treat them as an obstacle (ie. use skills or combat). I find it unlikely they will try and engage with them as characters, so I won’t spend time developing them now. If, however, the PCs do RP with them I will bring them back later.
When (if) the PCs get to talk to their NPC, they can learn about how the NPC hosted the inquisitor yesterday. The NPC really enjoyed it, and thought the inquisitor was a nice fellow. This NPC knows that the festival of fraternity dates back to before Carrie the Kind brought the worship of Illmater to the town. If the NPC travels a lot, they are quite fond of the music and art in the outside world. They describe it as a vibrant and beautiful place, with something new around every corner.
Generic NPC Guide. Defining Social Traits: Pick One Angry, Boistorous, Clumsy, Dangerous, Entitled, Friendly, Grand, Humble, Inquisitive, Joking, Kind, Loose, Maniacal, Neutral, Optimistic. Goal: Assign a goal that supports the relationship created by the PC Virtue: Tolerant Vice: Naive
Visit on the outskirts of town: Skill Challenge
Generic NPC Guide. Defining Social Traits: Pick One Angry, Boistorous, Clumsy, Dangerous, Entitled, Friendly, Grand, Humble, Inquisitive, Joking, Kind, Loose, Maniacal, Neutral, Optimistic. Goal: Assign a goal that supports the relationship created by the PC Virtue: Loyal Vice: Quick to Anger
Upon arrival at this NPCs house, they find the door wide open. Inside, on the floor, is the beaten and barely breathing body of NPC. They are currently at -1 HP and dying. If revived, they can tell the PCs that the inquisitor came to talk. The inquisitor was offensive, and NPC tried to punch him. The inquisitor defeated him easily. This NPC knows that the festival of fraternity used to include riddles and debates, alongside the wrestling and feats of strength that have survived to this day. If a traveler, this NPC dislikes the outside world because everytime the NPC was visiting the locals turned up their nose at them, made fun of their accents, and otherwise made the NPC feel like an outsider. If an expert, the NPC can tell them what is wrong with one of their improvised contributions to the cup ritual (like all the NPCs).
Visit in the Wilderness: Skill Challenge
Generic NPC Guide. Defining Social Traits: Pick One Angry, Boistorous, Clumsy, Dangerous, Entitled, Friendly, Grand, Humble, Inquisitive, Joking, Kind, Loose, Maniacal, Neutral, Optimistic. Goal: Assign a goal that supports the relationship created by the PC Virtue: Perseverance Vice: Highly Superstitious.
On their way out into the wilderness, the river is running high! It is dangerous to cross and will require some effort.
Appropriate Skills and Abilities: Swimming is the obvious option: DC 13 (remember to factor in armor check penalties)
Throwing Things Across: If a player throws something across with a simple DC 10 attack roll, then climb or acrobatics might be used instead of swim.
If they fall in, they take 1d4 cold damage, 1/2 damage with a successful fortitude save (DC 14).
The NPC will want recent news from town, which makes it easy to spark up a conversation. This NPC happens to hate cities on account of their squallor (if a traveler), or really enjoys the beauty and dignity of living in the wilderness. It’s a hard life, but a pleasant one. If an expert, the NPC can tell them what is wrong with one of their improvised contributions to the cup ritual (like all the NPCs who are cultural). Regardless, the NPC knows that the Festival of Fraternity used to feature animal sacrifice, and some people say it used to be human sacrifice (but the NPC thinks that’s just sensationalist fiction).
Visit Anywhere: Whichever NPC they visit first, they arrive at after after the inquisitor talks to them. This character was completely willing to sell out the town traditions because they want stronger relationships with the outside. If a traveller, it is because they like cities. If a local expert, it is because they dislike their local community. And either way, it is because of the material benefit of being in cities (and corresponding material lack in the isolated town). In this case, it is because of plentiful food in cities and the danger of a poor harvest in the town. Either way, they feel the festival of fraternity emphasizes a “trade” and a “friendship” with the gods, in exchange for boons from nature. This is prideful and selfish, and does not reflect true spirituality (in the NPC’s opinion).
Generic NPC Guide. Defining Social Traits: Pick One Angry, Boistorous, Clumsy, Dangerous, Entitled, Friendly, Grand, Humble, Inquisitive, Joking, Kind, Loose, Maniacal, Neutral, Optimistic. Goal: Assign a goal that supports the relationship created by the PC Virtue: Practical Vice: Cowardly.
And if the NPCs Don’t Fit this regional distribution? If you don’t have a character who lives in the wilderness, you can decide there is a river that separates the town in two, and make the problem occur at a river crossing. If there is no one who would live on a main street, then you can put the Visit in Town somewhere else. However, the crowd will come across as much more malicious; there is no way they were a bunch of people who just so happened to be in the area, and they were whipped into a frenzy.
And if there are less than 3 players? Just cut out the interactions that don’t make sense or sound the least fun to you.
And if there are more than 4 players? You can replace Gil (the mob leader) with another NPC, although this NPC won’t necessarily have a lot of information. You can also have a character witness the terrible beating of NPC 3
Part 3: Gathering a Posse
The players will now learn that the town is split in how to proceed. Many do not want to change their local traditions, but many want to conform to the outside world. The players’ various NPCs may take a stance, and competition for standing takes place within the community. The NPCs and PCs all have their interests represented by placement in a grid:
the town welcomes the religious education
NPC 1 (visit in town)
the town rejects the religious education
NPC 2 (visit on the outskirts)
the festival of fraternity occurs
NPC 3 (visit in the wilderness)
the festival of fraternity does not occur
NPC 4 (visit anywhere)
A character could, with a bit of deception, end up having their interests in each category so they always win a little bit. The PCs in the same cell as an NPC gain NPC Boons from that character if the event described on the grid happens. Note that it is possible for the preacher to lose and the inquisitor to lose, or for both to win, if the PCs pursue unconventional or diplomatic resolutions to the problem.
A character’s “interests” is a deliberately vague term. It could represent financial benefits, social standing, belonging within a group, or even a mental or personal investment. However, it must come up at the table. This means that if an NPC has a financial interest in the inquisitor winning, it must become apparent during a scene that the character stands to make money if the community has stronger ties to outside cultural institutions. If a PC has a personal investment in the preacher winning (for example, they are sincerely proud of their home town and its traditions) then they have to initiate some kind of roleplaying scene that implies their belief.
Ask the PC what they do each day in preparation for the Festival of Fraternity. The PCs actions can place them somewhere in the grid, or even in multiple places. The PCs actions can also change the in terests of various NPCs. This may result in some contested skill checks between players, some secret actions, and other kinds of “soft” PvP.
Part 4: Showdown with the Inquisitor
Unless the players have something sneaky planned, this begins with some improvised scene construction.
Begin by having the pro-festival crowd begin setting up the festival at dawn. This is a good time for some quick “platform building” improv. They can describe the setting, the things they are carrying in, and what events during the festival these things are for. They are to do all of this through narration and dialogue of them doing their part to set up the festival. This part can be creative and fun, but do not spend much time on it. It only requires one quick action and then a response from someone else, but I would aim to get 3 or so such “Offers.”
If anyone is anti-festival, but not pro-inquisitor, they can show up next to try and convince everyone to leave. The conflict to drive the scene forward has just been introduced.
After that, anyone who is anti-inquisitor can begin to escalate the conflict by argument. An excellent opportunity to roleplay “high status” and see how it can escalate conflicts.
And then the inquisitor arrives. Things here get a bit more structured for the GM.
The inquisitor’s goal here is to convince them of the virtues of Quietism: the belief that each individual can experience divine inspiration if they open themselves up to it by being quiet and calm. Quietism is a fairly individualistic doctrine because it makes room for individuals to be inspired outside of the church’s authority and holds that spirituality is ultimately a personal and “internal” matter. Note that quietism does not mean that there is no room for churches or religious orthodoxy. The doctrine just requires a strong position for an individual within the relationships between religious institutions, the divine, and individuals.
Quietism is, in the real world, an important part of some branches of christianity. The Society of Friends is one such branch. The catholic church also has a heresy called Quietism, and I believe the heresy is completely unrelated to the Quakers. I’m not sure. You can look it up on wikipedia.
Why is the inquisitor trying to be persuasive? The inquisitor is trying to convince the people to willingly not do their festival. The inquisitor is representing himself as being on the side of individual freedom within a society that forces people to participate in silly rituals, in an attempt to reframe the conflict. To the inquisitor and whoever in the town supports him, this is about individuals vs society. The those who support the preacher, it’s about the rights of each community to do as they please.
Hopefully this is a point of maximum uncertainty for the players and the GM alike. Hopefully the players will be split on how to proceed, just as the town is. It should be clear from NPC 1 that the town can be an oppressive place. It should also be clear that forcing other people to follow a religious path is an evil thing to do. But which one is worse? It is also obvious that embracing other cultures can be very inspiring and enriching. It is also obvious that our own (collective) identity is something to nurture and maybe even protect. But which is more important?
Unless everyone falls in line with the inquisitor, however, he begins a speech about holy wrath and it will incite a huge brawl.
But my players hate improvising and roleplaying! Then just jump to the brawl. I have met a few players who hated improv, but they were few and far between.
I don’t have any combat stats set up for this scene. I am moving, and my books are all locked up. I would give you a nice analysis of how to use the inquisitor’s abilities strategically to challenge different kinds of party compositions, but in all honesty I am getting bored of writing this adventure. If you are an experienced GM, you already know that part of the fun of GMing is figuring out how to use all the tools in your kit to maximally challenge the players (without cheating by fudging dice or changing stats on a whim). Enjoy figuring it out for yourself.
Part 5: Rewards
2 of the 4 grids from Gathering a Posse will occur. Everyone in those grids are now quite willing to do favours for one another. This means the PC gets a set of rewards in the form of NPC boons or small presents from each NPC on the grid.
If your players are annoyed at this, point out that having a skilled craftsperson owing you an NPC boon means you can get them to make you a magic item at cost. Normally it is doubled. Such a boon won’t be useful to a wizard who wants to specialize in item crafting, but everyone else should benefit substantially. Many other boons provide bonuses that are not-typed to skill or ability checks. If the bonus doesn’t have a type, it stacks with everything! NPC Boons are actually really good.
If you’re lucky, everyone will feel really invested in the setting and the NPCs and want to keep playing. They might want to go exploring this crazy outside world and see for themselves’ what is out there. Maybe they’ll want to go to the outside world and either smash the establishment or become powerful people of prestige. If you give this adventure a shot, tell me how it goes. Too many of my players read my blog for me to do this, and it would be fun to hear how different players and GMs end up creating different stories from the same starting point.