Always On Time: Post-Mortem

Context

When EN Publishing was launching a new adventure path, I was approached to write an adventure as a part of that path, as a result of my previous successful works with them.

Writing Always On Time was a challenge. In addition to the normal challenges of writing a long adventure as part of an adventure path, Always On Time was in a distinct and specialized setting (steampunk rather than classic high fantasy), and was going for a very intrigue-heavy vibe using a system not particularly known for being strong at delivering that through mechanics. Add onto that changing jobs and moving cities while writing it, and it was a moment that I very much relied on good direction, good editing, and the rest of the team involved to strengthen the final product.

The selection provided here is one of the more self-contained bits of a complex and interwoven storyline that culls from a tradition of spy movies, mystery novels, and intrigue. I selected this particular bit as it shows a particularly grand set-piece encounter that, though complex, handles in play fairly nicely. It’s not very representative of most of the adventure, but it does represent the kind of “experiences-first” design philosophy I typically use. A giant monster of fear and carnage attacking the train during a bandit raid? That’s something you can put in a cool illustration!

What Went Well

Overall, the adventure definitely appealed to the less hack-n-slashy crowd, so mission accomplished there. In this particular encounter, I’m very happy with the diversity of approaches and reactions to the monster attacks.

More broadly, I am very fond of the NPC’s I created. There’s a lot of diversity that shows some of the major themes and setting details in the adventure, which is very appropriate for this “break into two” point in the overall adventure path plot. The major characters and minor “red herring” NPC’s all have pretty interesting arcs and motivations, and all fit well into this steampunk setting of common, industrial magic. There is a tendency toward tragic villainy in the enemies that I’m happy to have cultivated. The pacing also worked well  – focusing the train ride setting on various stops along the way and what those stops change about the party’s investigation manages to drive the adventure toward a climax nicely.

What Could Have Gone Better

I can see, looking at the final product, that my initial design needed a lot of work to come to completion. This makes some sense to me, as the director on the project had a very specific vision of the setting and the adventure, and while I provided some nice bones, I didn’t have the detailed vision that the director did.  Additionally, while 4e D&D’s skill challenge format was a useful skeleton, I didn’t do much to liven up the “X successes before Y failures” format, and there’s definitely a bias in this adventure toward characters with particular builds.

The interwoven conspiracy / spy plot was probably too complex and non-linear for many parties. There is a LOT of story that some parties will just never discover, while other parties might clue to the true villains quickly and have a pretty narrow experience that is laser-focused on them. This adds flexibility in running the adventure, but if you’re only going to run the adventure once, and you want to get EVERYTHING out of it, you’re not really going to, and your players could miss huge and important chunks of the narrative here. That was a design allowance by the director, but I’m not sure it was the right call, and I could’ve done more to make the central throughline stand out.

As for this encounter, specifically, there’s ultimately too much for a DM to track over too many rounds. Were I to do this again, I would simply make the Screaming Malice actually unbeatable, and simply give a timeline for its attack until its retreat, rather than tracking casualties and guard damage.