The second – and likely last – 4th Edition Adventure Path, the Chaos Scar, recently finished with the big Heroic-Tier-ending adventure: Heart of the Scar. Because the Path has just finished, I feel it’s a good time to assess the AP as a whole.
I was initially critical of said endcap adventure, as it was level 9-11 when there had only been a handful of prior adventures above level 6, making it seem unlikely players would be high enough to play in said adventure unmodified.
Was I right? How well did the AP work? Read on then judge for yourself.
The introduction to the Chaos Scar series can be found here, which includes the following map:
The “mission statement” the Adventure Path, as outlined by the above article is:
If you’re interested in running a campaign with a unique twist, a Chaos Scar campaign is right up your alley. Each Chaos Scar adventure is intended to be run with minimal preparation.
Each month, we’ll update the Chaos Scar valley map with the locations of new caves as they’re unveiled in Dungeon. As we press deeper into the valley, the caves will grow more difficult and present threats that are correspondingly higher in level.
Some months, we’ll explore outside adventure sites or unique locations in the valley that aren’t adventures at all.
The Chaos Scar valley is intended to be dropped into any campaign setting. It’s remote, but nothing says it needs to be.
There is no overarching campaign goal other than to reach the end of the valley and destroy the meteor.
There is no reason to keep the goal of the campaign from the players, unless you’d like to do so. If you’d like to change the end goal, villain, or overarching agenda, it’s easy enough to do so.
Finally, feel free to allow the PCs to chart their own course. One of the goals of this campaign is to reduce the workload of DMs running it. Once the valley has been populated by a few caves, PCs should be allowed free reign to choose which dungeon they approach next. Maybe they feel like pressing their luck in a cave farther up the valley. Maybe they’re just looking to wade through some lower-level lackies after a humiliating defeat the session before. And while there’s nothing wrong with throwing them a surprise here and there by upping the level of an encounter or a cave, we advise against doing so on a regular basis. Part of the fun of the Chaos Scar is that the players know what they will face, on a rough power equivalency basis, in relation to their own level.
I’ll be using that outline as the yard stick to review the Adventure Path, using its goals to judge how well it achieved what it set out to do.
The Chaos Scar had a solid focus on the digital realm, with extra information (new as well as collected and compiled information) at the official Community group – found here   - which also has a wiki here.
This allowed the AP to have a dedicated forum and a place to store pictures as well as a blog where updates and notices could be posted. They could even have things like polls or announcements for members of the group.
I found the wiki particularly handy. Lacking tags on their articles, WotC makes it extremely difficult to find back content. Without it I doubt I would have found all the adventures.
However, after Steve Winter was laid off (and for several months before) the Group stagnated with no updates or changes, even for the wiki. I had to turn to the unofficial group for some information.
Some neat things (like the aforementioned wiki) were done, but I don’t feel as much was done with the community as possible. It could have been a place to really engage and work with the fanbase, and an additional place to look for adventure submissions (in addition to standard pitches). Still, the fact the group even exists was nice.
The first thing I notice is the drop in adventures after the initial surge, followed by the dwindling of updates.
One of the claims of the Adventure Path was that “Each month, we’ll update the Chaos Scar valley map with the locations of new caves as they’re unveiled in Dungeon.” It didn’t take long for this to stop being a priority and months to elapse between updates.
Some of this can be attributed to the sidelining of Steve Winter. He was the head honcho of the e-magazines at the time of the Chaos Scar (and is still the “owner” of the group). He likely became too busy with the day-to-day magazine to manage the Path, and then was replaced leading to a lack of interest in continuing the Path (or doing much more than wrapping it up in as few adventures as possible). It was likely his “baby” and the other folk working on Dungeon had their own pet projects they were pushing.
The initial idea was also: “As we press deeper into the valley, the caves will grow more difficult and present threats that are correspondingly higher in level.” This was certainly not true, as many of the later adventures did not feature caves or move much deeper into the valley; of the last half-dozen adventures only one featured a cave of any sort. The blurb also claimed: “Some months, we’ll explore outside adventure sites or unique locations in the valley that aren’t adventures at all.” This was initially true, as they detailed a home base location early on (Restwell, the winkingly named Keep on the Chaos Scar). But after that addition, the adventures were pretty much straight adventures and few interesting locations and a focus on hooks leading into the adventure, often featuring a person rather than a place. It became standard Dungeon fare. As the path quickly petered out, there were few options or side areas to explore. The players were forced more and more onto the rails to advance and has less opportunities to explore: they had the choice of “hooks A and/or B” or “hooks C and/or D”, if there was even a choice at that level band.
This is a shame. Because the AP was very much a sandbox, there should have been a focus on locales and filling in the original map. As it stands, most of the locations actually on the map are not detailed; compare the unlabeled map here with the labelled one here. Most of the adventures take place in blank areas few PCs will wander into. They're much more likely to go "hey, let's check out the Pillar of Eyes" or "I wonder what's at the Stone Forest is about". Instead, as the adventures moved more in line with traditional adventures, the DM needed to remember what the hooks were, player involvement dropped, and sandbox became a linear path of tenuously connected adventures, united only by the Chaos Scar serving as MacGuffin. (Oh, and the Stone Forest is briefly detailed in passing in the adventure the Slaver’s Stone.)
In a standard Adventure Path, the authors typically know where details are needed. But it’s static: once published it’s hard to update. And sandboxes are hard, because until players begin to explore and poke around, sometimes you don’t know where PCs will go. Dungeon – especially the online Dungeon – seems like the PERFECT place for a big sandbox Ap; if a gap was discovered or more detail is needed, the authors could fill the gap with a quick article. If there was an absence of enough gear or the players need to sell then, boom, a quick wandering Vistani caravan could have been slipped in. If there’s a whole lot of combat, then BAM, a big role-playing scenario can be added. If the comments from DMs say something is lacking or required it’s easy to fix. If multiple groups of players all zig when authors had expected them to zag, it’s not that hard to add zigging content.
There’s also the other possibilities that were never realized. The map could easily have included hyperlinks to the adventures and sites, making it a truly digital experience. There could have been factions with interests in the Scar, groups that PCs could join, which offered side quests. There could have been reactive adventures that spawned after certain events or changed due to the outcome of earlier adventures. With no page limited, the adventure could have done interesting things.
The sudden intense focused followed by decreasing content and then nothing is sadly typical.
WotC does seem to have a very short term focus. Legally, corporations are individuals, and if you analyzed WotC as an individual they’re be diagnosed with ADHD. They’re all about the next product: the next big hardcover, the new Encounter season, the upcoming change in the product line. Once a new shiny is released it’s suddenly less important, as only what’s next is the topic of interest. They don’t seem able to commit to a long-term strategy or continually focus on a single project; there’s too much creative turn over, staff shuffling, forward-looking, and reliance on freelancers.
This is likely fairly common in the publishing and game industry, where you produce then hype and then release and begin the cycle all over again. There’s little benefit to a focused continued hyping of a product. Video games used to be like this before patching and online updates became commonplace, where you’d release a game then move on. Even now, many studios have the main development team that release and moves on, with secondary post-release support handled by a secondary Live team.
So, a project like the Chaos Scar, which requires a consistent long term focus over an entire year (or more), is/was ill-suited to WotC. It had the standard burst of crazed attention followed quickly by inattention and a change of focus. The Chaos Scar had to be a long-term project to work as intended. A sandbox AP doesn’t work if there’s two places to go. Instead, attention wandered to other projects as the brand as a whole had a change of focus to “story”, which made the location-based Chaos Scar inappropriate for the company-wide focus de jour.
I suggested earlier that the Chaos Scar ended badly, with an adventure that was too high level given the few preceding adventures.
However, crunching all the numbers gave a surprising experience total: if a party did all the prior adventures and succeeded at every encounter, they’d be right in the middle of the final adventure’s level range, if not pushing Paragon tier. And they should end the adventure right around level 11-12. So it does work out and you can play the Chaos Scar as a big Heroic Tier campaign from level 1-11+. I was totally wrong, and admit that here in writing.
However, the stated goal of the Chaos Scar in the blurb was: “There is no overarching campaign goal other than to reach the end of the valley and destroy the meteor.”
The final adventure doesn’t quite do that as the final boss is more a monster than a meteor. But it works. The adventure fits thematically and works overall, if lacking the intended PC-centric motivation.
I don’t think enough of a push for CS pitches was made, that enough of the idea and framework was sold to submitters. Like most, I just assumed that WotC staffers would have called dibs on the interesting locations and didn’t submit much. And I didn’t see enough of a push made for adventures of other levels.
The realities of WotC’s publishing schedule hurt the Path. From pitch to publication could take six months, and the Path likely did not launch with a half-year of built-up adventures. The Chaos Scar should have been announced a couple months ahead of its release with calls for submissions of levels 2-4. It might have been an idea to have some generic art pre-ordered, as Art Orders are much of the reason for the long production time. Art (even unused art from prior articles) could also have been previewed during the call for submissions as a “write an adventure around this art” challenge. Likewise, the switch from being able to pitch anytime to the limited bi-annual pitches meant that Path was less reactive.
The Adventure Path also ran right smack into the restructuring and refocusing of D&D (especially DDI) after WotC shuffled staff and the D&D Essentials problem. The refocusing on story, which ran contrary to the needs of the Adventure Path.
The Chaos Scar began with a simple idea: a Keep on the Borderlands style adventure with caves where the motivation for adventure was in the hands of the PCs. Authors would make interesting caves and locations and the players would explore deeper into this meteor valley, knowing the deeper they delved the tougher things would gets.
As ideas go it’s simple and retro yet it works as a concept.
And it failed.
The idea of a sandbox adventure path is very much a long term project. Once launched it needs to be out in the public and achieve a critical mass of content before it’s usable. It’s not going to be released and immediately used by hundreds of groups. This makes it hard to judge its success as an article series. But WotC isn’t a company interested in the long-term success of a product line, even a digital one.
This is not to say the Chaos Scar is bad. There are lots of adventures and many are workable. And later adventures can work just as well by ignoring the hooks and pulling level-appropriate encounters from the adventures to design the sandbox. And it’s worth noting that the adventures with hooks are more useful for DMs not playing the AP: it’s always easier to ignore content than make it yourself.
In short, the Chaos Scar was not a disaster or complete failure as Dungeon content. It’s worth the subscription. But it fails at what it set out to do and does not quite reach its design goals.
At the end of the day, and when all has been said and done, it tried to do something different, it tried to be a different sort of Adventure Path. We’ve had sandbox APs before (see Pathfinder’s Kingmaker AP) but this took the sandbox idea to the next level. There’s no shaming in setting out to do something ambitious and failing; shame comes from setting the bar low or not trying at all.
So, for trying, Chaos Scar I salute you!