And the thing is...
Well, the other week we wrapped up the Shamutanti Hills portion of the Crown of Kings campaign. The PCs path to Khare takes them through the village of Torrepani, home of a tribe of miserable SVINN. These ugly half-orcs recently visited by BANDITS (the very same group that the PCs had recently crushed - literally, given that Ho Lee had summoned a GIANT using the YOB spell), who had (out of sheer badness?) kidnapped the daughter of the village chief and dropped her into the Sacrifice Pit to be eaten by a monster.
In order to rationalise the actions of the BANDITS I decided that the monster was widely held to be (semi-)divine, and that the BANDITS, led by FLANKER - who I decided was in the pay of the ARCHMAGE OF MAMPANG - were just the kind of men likely to offer a sacrifice to a dark god before taking on a KNIGHT, a SORCERER, and some other guy (I don't think it does to be too famous and recognisable as a THIEF). Of course, that the usual offerings to the dark god might be made by the SVINN is something that the PCs never thought to investigate.
The PCs passed the hut of the witch GHAZA MOON, and accepted her offer of tea (hurrah! For once, PCs a game that I am running have decided against antagonising magic user of unknown powers). I decided that she had an interest in the well being of the SVINN - not necessarily out of any goodness, mind you - and would provide the PCs with some background as to the troubles of Torrepani. As the GM, I was keen for the PCs to take on the monster, as victory would see the village shaman restore their missing SKILL points, depleted after FLANKER and the BANDITS had rolled a succession of critical hits. And that even I am thinking about playing a hand in husbanding the resources of the PCs in order that they jump the hurdles placed in front of them exposes the problems of 'The Quest' model...
So the PCs descended into the Sacrifice Pit, and with a reminder of the riddle they had been told just a couple of days ago - but weeks ago in real time - they finally worked out not to traipse down trap-ridden passages. Once that was settled, this was essentially a Skyrim dungeon - one twisty passageway that leads the PCs to the 'boss fight', picking up the missing SVINN girl on the way. And having the passageway behind them collapse, eliminating almost all choice on the part of the PCs. Quests, eh?
And the boss? A MANTICORE; the body of a lion, the tail of a scorpion, the wings of a eagle, and the face of a sad old man. The last bit makes this monster really quite nightmarish in my imagination. But the fight was over in short order - Ho Lee had summoned a couple of GOBLINS, which allowed the party to overwhelmingly outnumber the MANTICORE. Mopsy the Knight hid behind his shield and Cramer used his athleticism to dodge the swipes of the monster's great paws (both fighting Defensively, adding +2 to their Attack Strength in exchange for causing no damage - before this fight I talked the players through the way in which combat options and situational modifiers work with regard to chances of success, concerned that SKILL 12, three attacks and poison tail would be a PC killer if the players weren't aware of the ways in which their choices might play out mechanically). With the two 'fighty' PCs drawing the beast's attacks, Ho Lee and his GOBLINS attacked from the flanks. And when the MANTICORE rolled double one in the first round, the fight was all but over. I rolled that the monster lost its attacks for two rounds, and I ruled that the MANTICORE had got its paws tangled in the piles of bones that had accumulated it its lair. In the end a summoned GOBLIN finished it off, vanishing with a squeak and a flash of magic and the monsters collapsed on top of it.
I confess, I didn't give the MANTICORE much of a chance. I had it attack the two 'fighters' who met it head on (and then dodged and hid), rather than deal with the daggers slashing away at its sides. I also forgot to apply an Armour Roll on the first catastrophic round, sapping its STAMINA points away at a quicker pace - though its defeat was inevitable (and if the PCs did win it didn't matter how badly they were damaged). Outnumbering really matters in AFF2e - the next time the PCs encounter a lone monster, I'll rule that it only begins being outnumbered when it is facing more attackers than it has attacks.
So the village of Torrepani put out their bunting to welcome back the chief's daughter, and the PCs. In the celebration, the PCs were rewarded with restorative magic, a small bag of gold, and a few portions of Provisions, ready to set off for Khare when we next play.
And now, some half-formed thoughts about 'quests'. I'm not talking about 'quests' or missions that take place in a sandbox setting, in which the obstacles to PC success can be firmly fixed as existing 'in the world', and PCs choosing to attempt the quest can also choose to abandon their attempt (perhaps returning to it when new information, power, or inspiration reaches them), suffer the consequences of failure, and pursue other player defined PC goals. In such a game I would think little about allowing clues be left unfound or having a monster outmatch the PCs - though I'd hope that I'd offer the players enough information regarding the riskiness of their choices - as the game would continue regardless. But, if the game is in itself a more or less linear quest (if 'campaign' is defined as a Adventure Path rather than as a series of adventures involving the same PCs in the same setting, linked though player choice rather than GM determined plot) largely consisting of an unavoidable series of encounters, then the game demands that all encounters must not only be 'winnable', but also very difficult to 'lose'. Failure ends the game. If there are vital clues to find, they must be designed to be found by all but the poorest PCs, if there is a necessary macguffin, it must be practically handed to the PCs, and if a MANTICORE must be fought, then the MANTICORE must be reliably defeatable by the PCs as they exist when the encounter occurs. Because they don't find the clues, if the macguffin doesn't end up in their possession, if the monster (or any other obstacle) standing directing in their path outmatches them, and if retreat and goal realignment are not possible or make no sense, then the PCs face game ending defeat. Designed defeat.
In a gamebook, you roll up a new hero and begin again. Or cheat. In a sandbox, the PCs will meet failure by making new choices that address the consequences of their actions in the game world - perhaps they flee to the hills to form a guerrilla band as the ARCHMAGE starts a continent spanning war. While I might well try to 'open' up the later chapters, short of turning the game into a implicit sandbox, it will remain a quest in which failure to leap the unavoidable hurdles will end the game.
Neverthless, we're having fun with the Crown of Kings campaign, and we have the delights of Khare, the chaotic strangeness of the Baklands, and the classic Fighting Fantasy location: the wizard's citadel. And I am looking forward to exploring the strangeness.