Pathfinder Playtest: A Cursory Dissection of Doomsday Dawn (PF Playtest)
So, honestly, I wrestled with myself on whether or not to post this, because, ultimately, I don’t want to come off as a doomsayer or overtly negative regarding a system I am very much excited for. However, multiple folks asked me to share my thoughts on the subject matter of this adventure-anthology, so here goes.
It should be noted that this is no traditional review; the reasons for this will become evident over the course of this discussion. I will not dissect this module regarding its mechanics, as, considering the playtest-nature of the whole enterprise, that wouldn’t really be helpful – particularly due to the fact that I think that the problems of this adventure do not lie within either mechanics or the playtesting module concept per se.
I am going to SPOIL a lot of Doomsday Dawn’s plot, so if you haven’t already finished it, please be aware of that. I also assume that you know about the module’s plot below.
So, Doomsday Dawn is a bit of a centaur-like entity, if anything. It is very ambitious in that it attempts to do multiple things that are, at least to a degree, in direct opposition to one another:
- Provide a nostalgia-infused sendoff for Pathfinder’s 1st
- Deliver meaningful playtest data, which requires pitting players against situations that strain the systems of the game (and thus aren’t always fun).
- Tell an epic story across multiple years.
- Showcase the amazing stuff that PF Playtest/2 can do.
If this sounds familiar to some of you, then that obviously would be because it is, in some aspects, reminiscent of the practices of early access AAA-videogame development, with the crucial difference that Paizo actually has the means and desire to listen to the feedback of the fans, and, at least as far as we could see so far, really takes our concerns to heart. This is no fake BETA like Fallout 76, Anthem, et al.
That being said, I often encountered two points of view:
- “Doomsday Dawn isn’t fun for reasons xyz.”
- “Yeah, because it has to deliver playtest data!”
The problem with this type of reasoning is that this is not necessarily what Doomsday Dawn was sold as. Sure, being intended for playtest purposes is fine and all, but a more pronounced caveat would have mitigated some of the backlash the adventure (and system) received. In a way, the advertisement of Doomsday Dawn was one component that set it up for, at least partial, failure.
To be frank, I don’t think that Doomsday Dawn succeeded at fulfilling its ambitious baseline, but not due to the reasons that most folks would expect, and not due to how advertising it was handled.
Instead, I think that the crucial failure of this adventure-compilation is, ultimately, one of scope and scale, depending on how you look at it.
So, let’s start from the top – let’s talk about the overarching story.
I actually genuinely like it. The call-backs to classic modules, the way in which Doomsday Dawn presents an obscure and cataclysmic threat, the notion of mindquakes, the sheer stakes – the story is great. Reading about The Last Theorem and The White Axiom made me excited, nay, stoked – this notion of language shaping reality ties in with several theories near and dear to my heart, and as soon as the module’s full scope becomes evident, it can genuinely send a shiver down one’s spine.
The problem of Doomsday Dawn, from a narrative point of view, is that it takes quite a lot of time to convey the atmosphere and stakes, and that the playtesting, and, more importantly, lack of room available to develop the narrative, get in the way of fully appreciating the inspired concepts of the meta-plot.
Don’t believe me?
Okay, tell me 5 details about the good guys, the “Esoteric Order of the Palantine Eye.” I’ll be waiting.
Okay, know what my impressions were? “Generic esoteric order that’s secretive for no reason, and they’re obviously utterly incompetent. Their guys slip up and tell hired muscle they’re working for a secret order? IRL, that’d be the time when I’d be out of the door.” We also have NO IDEA about their resources, customs, what they stand for, etc. – they are entirely defined through their opposition to the bad guys. We have no ideas about symbols, greetings, etc. A simple, small sidebar with at least a few details could have a) vastly enhanced the roleplaying interactions and b) actually made the PCs and, more importantly, the PLAYERS, invested in the order.
This would particularly have helped during the “intended TPK scenario”, which casts the PCs as hired muscle for a cause they don’t understand. This lack of connection makes the whole chapter feel, also in the read-aloud text, like a module-version of “War. War is hell.” There is no reason to sacrifice yourself per se, apart from the words of your superiors. The cause doesn’t seem worth it from a PC perspective. From a player-perspective, at this point things look better, but still. It’s just the most obvious example of the issue that plagues Doomsday Dawn throughout. I don’t expect custom angles and hooks, mind you – but knowing for what you’re fighting, feeling like you’re PART of the order of guardians against the things from beyond? That’d have been a powerful motivator for PCs and players alike. Think about it: It’d have provided this conviction that, even though you may suffer and die, you’re doing the right thing – you’re saving, literally, the world.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
“The Lost Star” had me flash back to the days when Episode 1 hit the silver screens, in particular, ill-omened George Lucas’ statement that “everything rhymes.” In a way, much like the final dungeon of Rise of the Runelords #1: Burnt Offerings, we have a pretty vanilla fantasy dungeon-crawl, with a few tidbits thrown in: There would be a few hazards/traps that are a bit beyond what you’d expect, and here, PF Playtest highlights how its engine makes traps and hazards less of a “cross and invisible line for damage” thing, and more like something that can be meaningfully interacted with. This is a HUGE plus for PF Playtest, and an aspect of the system that I genuinely love. Drakus the Taker feels akin to Nualia, in that he’s a random boss that hints at the larger story awaiting. Drakus is interesting in that he highlights what the system can do with bosses. This adventure, as a whole, is decent, but suffers from the fact that a) it had less room to develop its dungeon and antagonist than RotRL #1, and b) is also a somewhat less interesting dungeon. In the original RotRL #1, at this point players were already invested in Sandpoint, had finished some smaller dungeons and encounters, etc. – here, it’s just a goblin-dungeon, like we’ve cleared about a bazillion times in various systems so far. The failure of this module, why it fails to garner the same impact, is one of scale and context – and that, alas, is a leitmotif for Doomsday Dawn.
“In Pale Mountain’s Shadow” introductory prose makes the Esoteric Order look like bumbling buffoons, which doesn’t really help the narrative. The trek through the foothills suffers from a lack of player choice and agenda, but the main failure of the module, to me, lies in the “Chamber of Planar Alignment”, which presents a puzzle that may as well not be there. Instead of presenting a gorgeous handout, a beautiful artwork, instead of having the players figure out the puzzle, it’s a series of checks. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t object to that per se, but here, this looks very much like a puzzle that should have been solvable by the players, with the OPTION to brute-force it with checks (or by waiting for the antagonists). This is not a puzzle, it’s an exercise in rolling the dice. It is abstract in the most unrewarding way possible. Considering how games have moved towards ROLEplaying, towards blending the rolling of the dice with actual roleplaying, this is, to me, a pretty big downer, and something that could have really highlighted a difference in design paradigm for PF Playtest. It’s also one of the aspects that made me rather apprehensive and something I genuinely hope Paizo will move away from.
Indeed, this ties in with another aspect of Doomsday Dawn: VTTs/player-friendly maps. They are pretty much a staple for the vast majority of 3pps out there, and from handouts to such maps, I really think that Paizo should step up their game in that regard. There is no reason the PCs shouldn’t have a keyless version of e.g. Sombrefell Hall. Don’t get me wrong: The module is a step in the right direction, with the neat keyless maps that ARE provided. I just don’t think it’s enough when compared to the handouts that modules by Goodman Games, for example, provide constantly.
Speaking of which. “Affair at Sombrefell Hall” could have EASILY been a truly remarkable adventure, but once more, is held in check by the scope it has to develop its ideas. The same meaningful playtest data could have been collected with a few tweaks: 1) make the situation more complex/include more NPC interaction. This is one of two modules herein that feature a bit of investigation, and it’s as basic, obvious and unrewarding as it gets. It feels a bit like a less nuanced version of Evil Dead. Similarly, the module could have used the valuable asset of the system regarding the streamlined interaction with the environment in combat to lighten up combat and highlight what the system offers regarding sensible interaction. The front-loaded roleplaying could have been injected in-between waves of undead for a more rounded and less redundant experience. Once more, the scale, the wordcount available, really hampers what this module could have easily been.
“The Mirrored Moon” is the adventure herein that perhaps best encompasses the issues regarding scale that plague Doomsday Dawn. This module could best be called “needless and nonsensical implementation of subsystems, the module” – treasure points, ally points, research points – I like all of these in theory. The issue of this chapter is, however, that none of these systems contribute anything meaningful to the adventure. When do you use points as an abstraction in adventure-design? When too many factors accrue to make the listing of individual consequences of actions feasible, when the if-then-diagrams would become too sprawling. I *LIKE* resource-gathering like this; I don’t object to using abstract means to determine the like. But here? There are a grand total of 3 (!!) entries for the consequence of research points, and a similar amount for ally points. Not every point ever matters, which ultimately DETRACTS from the feeling that the actions of PCs have consequences – because that third ally or research point?
If not every point counts, why bother with the point systems anyway? Why not state: 2 allies = x; 4 equals =y – this just creates a false illusion of a degree of differentiation that is just not here. In fact, most GMs would probably improvise a more nuanced action-consequence ratio here. Why bother at all with the point systems? Oh yeah, to showcase them. Thing is, while I LIKE them as concepts, their implementation here is so clumsy, it’d be funny, were it not so sad. I am almost 100% certain that this part of Doomsday Dawn was cut down from something that could have been so much better, that, you know, actually had a reason to use points?
“The Heroes of Undarin” could have been an amazing offering; in a way, daring to include it, is great. Players should be aware that there’s danger, that they may well be wiped out. Problems here range from the lack of environmental interaction points to the very unfortunate narrative issues bred from the introductory/denouement flavor texts and lack of information about the cause of the order. With a different framing, I am pretty sure that this wouldn’t have received the same level of disappointment, and instead elicited cheers for heroic blazes of glory. Another issue from a psychological perspective would be that the B-team, ultimately, doesn’t matter to the PLAYERS. While their A-team is attaining the White Axiom, a series of combats happen. Why not let the players play the process of attaining it, succumbing to the trauma, barely keeping it together as the B-team tries to keep them as safe as possible against the approaching onslaught? Switching characters would have added A LOT to this one. Again, scale. And what about making the performance of the doomed B-team actually have, you know, consequences regarding the whole plot??
“Red Flags” is easily the best stand-alone module herein: The characters are quirky, the metaplot components matter; we get actual roleplaying, the system showcases how it can blend interaction/exploration/roleplaying, etc. – This is a genuinely well-made and fun ADVENTURE I enjoyed. It showcases the strengths of the system, is fun to play, and it’s a tragedy that it shows up so late in the book. If this one had been included earlier, I bet more groups would have stuck with the playtest to the end. While it could have used more key-NPCs to interact with, it’s also the only adventure herein that doesn’t suffer from the scale-issue: It presents a comparably humble premise and delivers on it. It doesn’t feel like it needed a couple of pages to work as well as it should. (Though, handouts/artworks depicting the heist-relevant rooms would have been AWESOME…just sayin’…)
And then, there’d be “When the Stars Go Dark.” This is, in a way, the chapter of this module that highlights best a crucial component of what PF Playtest does infinitely better than the 1st edition. The finale, the rules presented for the White Axiom? They are AMAZING. I love the final encounter to bits. That being said, this chapter does have issues that look like compromises on…bingo…scale. Where is the read-aloud text, or better, artwork showing the revelations the PCs have?
This brings me to my main gripe with the finale, which has less to do with content, and more with art. That artwork of the star-spawn at the start of the module elicited a groan from me. It’s not creepy, it’s goofy. Also: Cthulhu et al are SO played out anno 2018/19, and the module frankly doesn’t need them, when it has malignant theorems and Ramlock himself, as great examples how you can provide fresh creatures that are lovecraftian, and not a rehash of the done-to-death mythos critters.
Ramlock gets an amazing artwork. The issue is, that the artwork fails to hit home regarding its impact, as we don’t have a scale reference. Reading the text, seeing his ginormous face approach, realizing how grossly mutated he is, how vastly swollen, is an AWESOME image that begs to have a visual representation. The artwork of Ramlock, sans scale, makes him, courtesy of the lack of…scale…look like a humanoid-sized monster and makes him miss the mark regarding his grotesque and epic proportions. He loses much of the impact.
Similarly, the veinstone pendulum, the whole set-up of the final battle – if anything ever warranted the talent of Paizo’s amazing artists, it’d be that final scene. While I would have loved to see a bit more exploration of Ramlock’s Hollow prior to the finale, this is, alongside “Red Flags”, by far the most structurally-sound adventure herein, and it really made me excited for the future. The “Ashen Man”-encounter is also nice, has a glorious artwork and is really cool – easily one of my favorite roleplaying interactions in the whole module. We need more of that type of Lovecraftian horror, and less simple quoting of mythos monsters to be hacked apart. The only failure in scale of this last module, would thus pertain the choice made in art-direction.
Okay, I just realized how scathing a takedown this may sound like; and, in a way, it is. Doomsday Dawn, to me, as a module, is an abject failure.
My general sense of bottomless disappointment, however, is not based on a lack of love for either system or module. If anything, it comes out of a genuine appreciation of what PF Playtest and PF2 are are attempting to do right – of what I see here regarding the system’s potential.
Beyond this, it is based on the fervent conviction that Doomsday Dawn’s story deserved better.
The story spanning years and groups is a great angle (in fact, from mid-story TPKs to multiple groups, it has some ambitious angles that I hope we’ll see in APs!); the occult underpinnings are AWESOME and the module has so much going for it…and almost manages to attain its lofty goals, only to fail at realizing its full potential, time and again, due to the constraints of page-count and scale.
Its struggles regarding the blending of meaningful playtest data and compelling storytelling, can universally be reduced to the issues of scale and wordcount available.
With 20-30 additional pages to really develop the respective narrative components (say, at 128 pages), Doomsday Dawn could have generated buzz unlike any I’ve ever seen. It could have been a masterwork that redefines what you can do in a playtest, what it can mean to provide a fulfilling and amazing playtest that leaves folks wanting more. As written, though, it is solely a testament to the author’s prowess that this still has its moments, in spite of its massive shortcomings, though they are very much clustered towards the end of the module.
With a few more pages to make all the concepts shine, to REALLY showcase what PF Playtest’s rules are capable of, without this general sense of being cramped and beholden to deliver maximum playtest data in minimum page-count, regardless of subsystem-viability in a narrative context, this could have very much become the nostalgia-infused, glorious sendoff it almost managed to become, but in the end, fell short of. How would I rate this? You don’t even want to know.
As written, it is a great story that deserved better, it is a playtest that sacrificed a great story and unnecessarily generated apprehension, when a bit more room could have created a stellar masterpiece while still providing the data required.
An alternative route would have been the presentation of playtest scenarios as playtest, and this module as a real showcasing of how cool the system can be – the divorcing of both aspects. That probably would have mitigated some economic concerns that must have played a part in the ultimate decision to make the module as cramped and brief for its ambitious premise.
Don’t get me wrong: I am still very much excited for the new version of the game; at the same time, however, I am left with a somewhat bitter taste of apprehension in my mouth that was utterly unnecessary. I am left with the fear that economic concerns regarding Doomsday Dawn may have hurt the game to come, when the buzz of a better, well-rounded Doomsday Dawn would have generated a far more optimistic and jubilant reaction from folks out there and thus, benefited the game in the long run.
These are just my 2 cents, and I am not privy to insider information or anything – it’s just this humble reviewer’s perspective.
Here’s to PF2, and may it learn from the Playtest!
You can get Doomsday Dawn here.
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