I'm currently playing through the Fires of Creation module (part of the Iron Gods path). While adjusting to a style I haven't played in many years, my game design brain has been engaged, and a new thought on how the whole thing works has just cohered for me:
1) Even when the GM has no affinity for railroading, a module is not a sandbox. There are only so many fun things to do, and most of them are more or less laid out in a path that must be traveled in a certain broad-strokes order (e.g. you can traverse the mini-dungeon via any route you want, but you have to defeat the mini-dungeon before you can enter the iron tunnels).
2) Given that the overall shape of the fictional journey is not in question, the uncertainty of play lies in how it will be traversed. Important questions to be answered in play include:
- Is the fictional journey cool? Do we dig the module's aesthetics (and plot, if there is one)?
- What other stuff, tangential to the core journey, will happen along the way? Will we grow to love or hate any of the player characters, or any of the people or places they interact with?
- Will the initial set of player characters all survive to see through to journey's end?
- Will the journey unfold quickly and directly, or haltingly, with much pausing and back-tracking to recuperate, restock, etc.?
- Will we complete the full adventure, or come to a good stopping point before that (such as a TPK)?
3) Combat is the primary randomizer of the journey's shape. All of the questions above depend in part on how injured the characters get (or are deemed likely to get) at various points in the journey. There are several possible ways to approach Pathfinder combat in this context:
- Use no strategy at all, roll the dice, and see what happens.
- Try to perfect your strategy, retaining maximum hit points and other resources.
- Combine any levels of the above, with an "onward quickly or bust!" mindset.
- Combine any levels of the above, with a "keep these characters alive, however many takes it requires!" mindset.
4) For whatever your combat goals may be, knowing the rules well and building an effective character will increase your ability to achieve them. If you don't have combat goals, or find them thwarted by your group, then mastering the rules or making a slick build yields little return in fights.
5) Depending on the roles of combat and soaking in the scenery for a given group, the "other stuff that happens along the way" can become the primary forum for meaningful player contribution. Examples:
- Doing socially savvy things that get you fame and/or adoration.
- Doing socially inappropriate things that are hilarious.
- Forming strong attachments to weird or absurd objects, foods, pastimes, etc.
- Creating and performing character-defining shticks.
- Relating everything that happens to your character concept. ("I consecrate this battle to my deity!")
- Looking badass in combat. (Even absent strategic combat objectives, a good build can help you pull this off.)
6) If the above 5 points accurately describe play, then I think anyone who's confused about "what I am there to do" can look at their group through this lens and possibly find a path toward an answer. Similarly, if a group is interesting in streamlining module play, this sort of understanding might help them pick what to trim and what to emphasize.
For example, my current group is pretty low on scenery-soaking, moderate on "other stuff" tangents, moderate on the combat goal of avoiding permanent character deaths, and low on other combat goals. Accordingly, we appreciate it when the GM fast-forwards through foregone conclusions in combat rather than making us do every roll, and we maintain a balance of quick forward progress with frequent (but short-lived) digressions.
If I were hacking the module for this group, I'd probably use more weak but deadly opponents (to get us to the "move on or play safe?" decisions with less "roll to hit, roll to hit, roll to hit" grinding) and replace a few combats with social obstacles (so that doing funny or shticky character things isn't relegated to recuperation time).
As is, personally, I'm enjoying combats more now that I know that "keep moving forward, don't die" is the goal, but that no one cares about pursuing it optimally, so I can feel free to do stuff that's merely entertaining as long as it doesn't dramatically change our odds of having to go back to town and heal.
I imagine all this will seem obvious to some, and irrelevant to others who are used to doing things in one particular way, but I think it's interesting in the context of a game that attracts a diverse audience and attempts (or at least allows itself) to be different things for different people. I've seen plenty of writing on the "how does a new group in a D&D game cohere?" front, but I've never stumbled upon anything exactly like this schema that just occurred to me, so I figured I'd chime in and see what y'all think.