The Fragility of Linearity

The Tuesday night campaign I play in is rapidly coming to its conclusion. It's been such an interesting thing, in large part because it's basically two distinct sections of content.

The low level content was much more open and sandboxy (very anchored to the official 5e way of pseudo sandboxes, but at least it was trying). Then I believe, it tried to go "epic" for the higher level stuff. However it feels like the writers spent all their time on the early game, and then just tossed off the later game. And it's unfortunate.

The biggest problem with the late game is how fragile the content is if the players have information. Everything seems based on the players not knowing things. We blitzed through a bunch of content because the DM answered our questions and the group almost immediately came up with the solutions to the problems. So the events, that likely sounded epic in the text of the adventure, turned out to fall kind of flat in play. We basically walked down a road, saw some sights, and went to our goal.

We saw big things off the side of the road, but we didn't go investigate them because they didn't appear to relate to the overall goal/destination of the adventure. Apparently those things were optional fights, and we skipped them all, so we've gone several weeks without combats.

I think this is fine, but because of how the adventure is written, with milestone advancement, we gain a level each time we progress to the next world.

We went from an early game slog of adventureing and hunting down clues and stuff, with minimal levels, to a mid/late game of no combat, and a level every week.

So we come to last night's game. We arrive in a new world. We're greeted by a goddess. We're looking for a place where they build boats. She says we need a guide. Says we can find a guide near these stacks of stones in the wilderness that are placed to honor the dead. And that's it.

We head into the wilderness. We find a pond. There's a stack of stones. Our bard says "Oh I know these legends, we need to honor the shrine and you do that by adding a stone to the pile." So she does that, and we're immediately attacked by a giant, powerful monster who's casting circle of death and making it rain fire and shit. Everyone is discombobulated.

Then, when it's all over, the DM reveals that there were the corpses of multiple ravens around the stack of stones, and there was blood on the stones.

So then I become a poopy pants. How did no one see the bodies and blood? There were 4 of us near the stones. What is going on? And we come to the DM's conundrum:

As we approached the stones, he rolled a die to determine how the pile was supposed to be honored. But he didn't tell us why he rolled or the result. We didn't ask what was around the stones because we didn't know that we needed to. The goddess didn't tell us that we needed to ensure we honored the stones a certain way or we would offend guardians or something. And the DM didn't tell us there were corpses around the stones, which should have been super obvious (ravens are the size of a human torso in the real world, how much bigger could they be in a fantasy setting?).

A couple of problems led to this lack of information.

1. The DM wanted us to have a combat. And you know what, that's totally fine. We really hadn't had a combat in 3-4 weeks/level gains.

2. We came to learn during our post game discussion that the only content really detailed for this part of the adventure was the random table of ways to honor the stones, and the monster that shows up if you do the wrong thing.

What we see here, more than anything I think, is the deep fragility of linear adventures. If the goddess had informed us in any way (even cryptically) that there are certain rites that must be observed, everyone in the party would have been asking questions about the stones and what was around them when we finally saw them. If we'd honored the stones appropriately (find and raven, kill it and put its blood on the stones) then we would have, once again, completely "bypassed the content" of this world.

Our "epic" adventure would have been "ok, we hunt through the lush forest for a raven, kill it and put its blood on the stones". And apparently that would have been pretty much the end of the current world and we'd have leveled up. That's pretty lame. Especially when we've been doing the rough equivalent for the past 3-4 weeks.

It's especially tough when pre-written adventures promise that you're going to have these "epic" campaigns if you pay the creators $50, and then it turns out that this is the sort of stuff they give you.

Don't get me wrong, shrines that need to be honored in a certain way in order to unlock stuff is good. I'd even say it's great, but that can't be the content of an entire heavenly plane.

If much of the campaign is the gods praising the characters and telling them that they're "the chosen heroes" but then they don't warn the party that the shines they seek need to be honored in a certain way, it's completely incongruous. The priase feels hollow. Empty. From the practical side it makes sense because it's such a simplistic problem that any sort of warning will upset all the content and enable the party to "skip" it.

And there are so many ways to solve this. If your gods are cryptic assholes then you're good. Players will also probably be actively distrustful (which would probably undermine the "puzzle" too though). Better would be: "Hey, so glad you heroes showed up. Some of our shrines are being corrupted by whatever, I'm focused on the major war effort, could you please go clean a few of these up?" Yes. Absolutely. We want to help. We want to do that stuff. That's what we're here for. And that makes it feel better.


The larger problem I believe, with this adventure and the many like it, is that the story has already been written. Not only is the ending set, the path is set. All the options and asides are supurfulous. The choices we make don't really matter because the story can only progress one way, and it's only a matter of "how much did you suffer along the way?" or "How much optional loot did you take the time to discover?" Of course, you could upend the whole thing and let the players go off and do their own thing, but then the module is no longer capable of supporting the adventure, and you may as well have written your own, instead of spending $50.

Don't promise an epic campaign. Promise epic problems and entanglements. Let the story be emergent.