Hello! I’m one of RG’s friends and agreed to share the posting duties with TheLoPlace while he takes a brief break. I’m not new to this blog – I’m jennybeth in the comments. Unfortunately, someone has already laid claim to that alias on WordPress, so I have chosen the name of one of my favorite characters that I have played: a firesoul genasi artificer who had a spectacular death of being clobbered by a magical guardian, criting her fire-backlash power and then being pushed off the edge of a giant wizard’s tower. Anyways, on to the actual post:
I know that RG has put a moratorium on negative D&D 4e talk on his end, but I wanted to use my first post to describe my first (and so far only) long term GM experience. Subtitle: Why you should never run a 4th ed. prepublished adventure.
I decided to run ‘Seekers of the Ashen Crown’, an Eberron specific adventure where the basic premise was that the adventurers were on an quest to discover all of the pieces of the Ashen Crown, an artifact that held power over the dead. The PC’s were also in a race to get all of the pieces before the main villain. I had read through the adventure, and I thought the basic premise of the story was interesting – there was a damsel in distress, double agents, and a pretty convincing MacGuffin. Also, I had at least one player who was very interested in the Eberron world, and the others were not adverse to it. So, it looked like it would be a good start to my GMing career.
I will not go into every boring detail, because I know that sometimes it’s a “you had to have been there”-type situation. But I will write about the main issues that came up in the game: Encounter problems, Short-sided setups, Sucky Skill Challenges, and Newbie GM mistakes. And although most of the readers seem to be experienced GM’s, I also have a couple of lessons that I learned that I will be applying to the next game I run. Note: I am specifically referring to problems I had in this particular adventure – however, I have played in many of the prepublished adventures and have read even more of them. My general dislike of the 4th ed. prepublished adventures has come from the sum of all of these experiences, not just this one adventure.
Encounter problems: Encounters took a long time to setup – The maps were very specific (mostly the inside of tombs with winding tunnels and very specific set pieces) and took a long time to draw out. I pre-drew my maps on graph paper – which was quicker than using dungeon tiles to create the space or drawing them on the fly, but I still put in around 1/2 hour per map. I also was anal about my monster stat blocks, so it took me about 1/2 hour per encounter to collect the stat block for each monster, put them all in a single document and print it up (maybe overkill, but I wanted somewhere I could notate all of the important things about the creature. If you have seen the stat block changes that they have made in the Monster Manual 3, it solves many of the problems I was having with overlooking powers).
I guess I wouldn’t have had much of a problem with this, except that the encounters that they had were boring and uninspired. Part of the job of the GM is to make fights interesting, but there are some monsters that are just boring. Also, the environment the encounter is set in is just as important as the monsters – the maps mainly consisted of empty tombs with some difficult terrain and the occasional pillar or coffin. I received very little positive feedback for the encounters I ran – except for the single encounter I made up to fill in a plot hole. Running that encounter was extremely fun for me (it was exciting – a fight along a set of roof tops, with wide, but jump-able gaps and enemies that could push PCs off), and my players seemed to perk up a lot more in that one than the others I ran. This leads me to the next topic.
Short-sided setups/Plot holes: I think the biggest issue I had with the prepublished adventure was how railroady it was. Now, I’m already hearing the complaints – “But isn’t that the point?” and “Why don’t you just change it?”. Yes, the adventure is going to be a little railroady, but this particular adventure eliminated even the appearance of choice.
The most egregious example of this was when the PC’s received a letter in the morning that basically said, “Hey, this is the professor you’ve been working with. I think that the chick we’ve been getting information from might be involved with a really evil organization. I don’t know if she knows if I know, but I will store my papers in a hidden door in case I’m kidnapped. Anyways, see you at 8PM tonight. Toodles!” The adventure not only assumed that the PC’s would wait until 8PM to go see the professor (and not immediately rush over to make sure she was ok), but it also assumed that the PC’s would shrug when they didn’t find her and just continue on the adventure! It made no provisons for the PC’s trying to rescue the professor (even though there was some built in time that they had to wait in the city).
I ended up extending the story a bit and creating an encounter to show the PC’s that the kidnapping would be solved by following the main plot. And I have no problem with extending the adventure, but at what point does extending the adventure defeat the purpose of using a prepublished adventure? Isn’t the point of these adventures is that it makes it possible to organize a quick game or make it easier on new GM’s?
Sucky Skill Challenges: I have mentioned it in the comments of RG’s posts: Skill Challenges Suck. However, I didn’t realize how pointless they were until I read the skill challenge that was put in this adventure. The skill challenge was set over a series of days and was created to represent how hard it was to travel. More successes than failures each day allowed the PC’s to get a +2 bonus to skill checks and more failures than successes gave the PC’s a -2. In addition to the other skills, all of the PC’s had to make an endurance roll, and if they failed that, it cost them a healing surge. Also, on days 2, 4, and 6, there was a scheduled encounter (the skill checks mentioned above were supposed to help with gathering info before the encounters).
I know I’m not going into a lot of detail, but even with the above description, a few issues should immediately pop out: On the days in which there are not encounters, what does it matter if the PC’s lose a healing surge? At the end of the day (which, unless the PC’s have any role-playing that they want to do, will occur very soon after the skill challenge checks), they will take an extended rest and regain them. Also, on the days that there are encounters, is missing only one healing surge going to make a difference? In fact, there is very little reason for the PC’s to hold back on their daily powers because they will just be taking an extended rest at the end of the day (This will not immediately known by PC’s; however, after the first encounter, it will be quite obvious that there is a pattern). Finally, the bonuses/penalties for skills to gather information – this is fine in theory, however in practice very little ‘knowledge’ gathering is done before the encounters. One was an ambush, and the other two were encounters that they ran into on the road – so it didn’t seem to mean much.
I can only assume that the skill challenge intended that the PC’s would not take extended rests – with that assumption, the skill challenge at least seems to have actual penalties for the PC’s. However, the adventure did not mention anything about banning extended rests for the trip, and there was no indication that there was a time limit that the PC’s needed to adhere to – taking the extended rests did not make them miss anything in the adventure. I ended up eliminating the skill challenge altogether and putting two of the encounters on the same day. It made it slightly more challenging for the PC’s and eliminated a bunch of the unneeded book keeping.
Newbie GM mistakes: I think every first-time GM makes mistakes – but I think running a prepublished adventure actually makes those mistakes more obvious than in other situations. I was not able to be as flexible as I needed to be to account for PC actions that I did not predict. Honestly, I think it was harder for me to predict the unpredictable because I had been given a blueprint of what the characters’ reactions should be. I knew my players reasonably well – I should have predicted that they would try to save the professor and not just go “darn, I guess that sucks for her.” However, I was presented another path that the characters could take, a reasonable path, and it made me blind to other possibilities.
I also had very weak reasons for the party to stay together (and the adventure provided a particularly stupid one – an oath that none of my players wanted to take). I know that RG has posted about it at least once, but it really is an important concept. It was very important in this adventure because the group was essentially going on a secret mission on behalf of the kingdom’s government – no room for mistrust there. I also had characters die/leave the party and it is very hard to weave in new characters to this adventure (I think in general this is a problem for the GM, but that’s another post).
Also, I was unable to clearly express the pertinent details of the adventure to my players. I think there is always a point in a game where the players and/or the GM realize that they are talking about two totally different things. In this adventure, it happened a couple of times – and although I will take the blame for most of it for being unclear, I think the adventure was also particularly clumsy about the details (plot holes, etc). It was very convoluted and conveyed information to the players that was not really needed and logically, should not have been given to them (info like kingdom secrets that really didn’t help them in any way).
Lessons Learned: I think if I were to do this adventure again, I would definitely not stay true to the exact adventure. I would create my own encounters to punch up the boring ones (and probably eliminate a few to prevent the dungeon delve draggy feel that occur in the tombs). I would make details clearer and try to eliminate the plot holes that I encountered (although, I know that is easier said than done). I think overall premise of the adventure was ok, but the execution was sloppy and I had to do as much work to fix it as I would have done to make up my own adventure.
As I mentioned above, I have found similar issues in other prepublished adventures I’ve played in or read. The most recent adventure, The Slaying Stone, actually has a skill challenge in it that doesn’t have a failure condition – at all. So, although it might look like I’m just giving up based upon one bad experience, I have noticed that these issues seem to be more common than not.
And that’s the bottom line for me: 4th ed. prepublished adventures do not do what they are supposed to do. They are supposed to make it easy for a GM to get a group together and run through an adventure, with minimal GM overhead work. I’ve even seen it recommended for new GMs – so they can have an example adventure and to see how it should play out. If, in order to make the adventure palatable, the GM has to tweak it extensively (to the point of rewriting most of it), then what is the point of using the prepublished adventure in the first place?