I got my signed copy of Razor Coast in the mail last week (number 68 out of 500), and spent the weekend reading through it. When I originally kicked in for it, I was mostly interested in the “high age of sail” done D&D by Nick Logue, one of the stalwarts behind the Pathfinder adventure paths. I knew Razor Coast was going to be a mega-campaign (over 500 pages) done in build-a-campaign form, which sounds awesome. But it’s even more awesome than that, and really impressed me.
What Razor Coast provides is a ton of interesting set pieces, NPCs, plot threads, and adventure seeds, for two large-scope canned campaigns—one major plotline, one minor one. What intrigues me is that it’s constructed in a very abstract, modernist way, as in I can see some elements of indie gaming rubbing off. Also, more than a passing influence by the choose-your-own-adventure genre.
The book advises the GM thus: rather than come up with one plot and forcing the characters to adopt, it gives the GM a ton of elements to throw in that all lead in similar directions. What you use are the plot threads the players show interest in, the ones they follow; those lead to the different encounters and NPCs, which impacts the way the campaign is built. Theoretically, you could re-play the campaign a half-dozen times with limited overlap, just with another group of players (or even the same group of players making different decisions). An NPC who was at odds with the players one game may be a loyal ally this time, etc.
I guess this sounds a lot like any other RPG, but Razor Coast is more fluid and dynamic than most prepackaged campaigns. Most D&D modules—Ptolus, Paizo’s Adventure Paths, Red Hand of Doom—are very straightforward with plot. The author(s) come up with the linear adventure plot, the players and GM follow it. There are places where players can fall off, where they may not even be hooked to begin with. The value of a canned adventure is greatest when the players willingly follow it, because their characters have reason to. As soon as they try to do something outside the realm of plot, either the GM is scrambling to come up with ways to point them in the “correct” direction, or forcibly railroading them.
Razor Coast has a definite “save the world” goal, but offers tons of options—essentially, the trick here is getting the players to avoid the plot, as potential hooks are thrown in with the set-pieces and random encounters. The design is pure Bethesda-style sandbox set on a tropical pirate paradise, where just about every encounter is a hook for the players. If they ignore one, there’s always another; handling something in one way alters how future encounters happen. There’s a metric ton of developed NPCs with complex relationships and goals, which makes things interesting—especially since so many of them have triggers for ill-fated ends.
What makes Razor Coast the pinnacle of d20-based adventure design is that flexibility—for plot, the GM needs to read through his arsenal of hooks, then can sit back and watch it unfold while focusing on the nitty-gritty (combat, roleplaying NPCs, description, etc.). Player interest and action is the driving force, which makes it seem—well, from an armchair general prospective—more rewarding. And less likely to be an issue when the players inevitably go left when you expected them to go right. The GM’s given aids to track how the story is developing, and encourages them to complicate things and build dramatic tension for the plot arcs.
It’s a sandbox. It’s a fully-realized epic campaign. It’s determined by player initiative. It’s got tons of options and complexities for the GM to throw in. Everyone wins.