Newbie GM’s & Prepublished Adventures Don’t Mix

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?

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8 responses

  1. I agree with what you’ve said, and I’d like to add that the problem is not just 4th Ed modules. Modules in general are awful. They can function (more or less) if the party just wants to murder things and could care less about how stupid the premise of their fights are, but if anyone devotes some serious thought to what is going on the module crumbles.

    I have plenty of entertaining stories about modules, but they are all about how the party derailed/destroyed the module (Ask Dave about how he ruined that Dark Heresy module, by himself).

    Unfortunately, you bring up a good point. New GMs are often pushed toward modules to “ease them in” to GMing. But modules suck and make them want to GM less. I have a solution that I would like to try out when the semester picks back up… maybe we can fix this.

  2. All good points. Adventures are actually very hard to write well. I have not encountered many well-written adventures in terms of covering plot holes, not railroading etc. I have written an adventure or two for actual publication, and I can tell you that

    a) it is not as easy as it looks,

    b) play-testing only reveals the bugs the play-testers find, and

    c) there is never enough time in the publishing schedule to fix even all the bugs that are found.

    Notwithstanding this, occasionally a well written adventure does slip through.

    However, when all is said and done, as a long in the tooth gamer I must say that for the most part, what DMs write themselves usually suck even more. Where the DM catches up and even beats the published writer is that having “written” the adventure yourself, you are fully aware of the overall plot, and you can be very flexible because you know what is going on “off-camera”. It is far easier to paper over the plot holes and make more convincing skill-challenges for your own creations when you know all the behind the scenes action and consequences.

  3. Hey Paul, ruined is relative. We both know that if the module had continued, Eric would have just run around killing every NPC except for the ones who wanted to kill him and Richie would have kept looking for that Baneblade on the planet full of sand and demon crows. I cut the module in half by doing the sensible thing and let you get on with your better original content.

  4. In my 20+ years of running games I’ve run a few prepublished adventures/modules. I’ve run them for every edition of D&D, GURPS, Shadowrun, and, well, lots of other systems too… In all that time I’ve found maybe 3 or 4 that I didn’t have to change significantly to make worth running and have run more than once…

    1. Caravan to Ein Arris (old GURPS adventure)
    2. The Mad God’s Key (from Dungeon Magazine – 3.5 D&D)
    3. Harkwood (GURPS Fantasy campaign)
    4. The Abduction of Crying Dawn Singer (WEG D6 Star Wars system).

    Other than these, I’ve pretty much built the rest of my adventures from scratch — or run modules that turned out to just plain suck and so by the end of the first night I was seriously altering them to make them work.

    I think a key element of the question about pregenerated modules is this… does the module, as written, make the PCs want to follow the adventure it contains? This is a deeper question than it seems on the surface and can be read a lot of ways, but what I am trying to get at is, can just about any group that might belly up to the table find a reason to go on this adventure and then be excited about following it through to its conclusion? That’s key for me in evaluating a module.

    After that the question is, does the module help the DM provide a good play experience with less work than writing one of their own? If the answer is, “steal this hook, but the actual adventure needs re-writing from the bottom up” then then answer is no. So far, the WotC adventures written for 4E are almost universally terrible. Seekers of the Ashen Crown, Spellguard Tower and The Slaying Stone are particularly awful offerings… but the others aren’t much better.

  5. You know, I initially felt that this was an interesting blog with some controversial but well thought out criticism of various aspects of gaming in general and 4e in particular. It seems that that is really just a smoke screen for some cheap WotC bashing that is non-constructive and non-enlightening.

    The truth of written adventures for experienced and 21st century gamers is that we (some of us anyway) are looking for more. Far more quality and consistency and detail than we ever sought before. With modern fiction, cinema and video games, we want a lot from our hobby. At the same time, significant numbers of us (who these blogs are patently ignoring) don’t actually care about any of this. They just want to get stuck into a good fight, and win cool treasure. I suspect from looking around tables, that they comprise the majority. Sure a good hook, consistent storyline and believable villains make for a better more compelling experience. But put that together with lukewarm combat challenges, and most of your table will feel dissatisfied.

    The other part to this is that there is no budget to write good adventures. Writers are paid 10 cents per word at the highest rates the industry pays. It takes upwards of 30 hours to write an adventure that simply passes muster as having some descriptive text, some combats and a skill challenge. To make that into a good adventure with compelling plot, consistency and challenge obviously takes more thought and planning. playtesting and fixing for consistency, plot holes, missed player choices etc. takes even more time. The fact is, any adventure is probably written at less than $5 per hour, and good ones for less than that.

    Why is this? I suspect we have done it to ourselves. I perceive that D&D material cost a far larger proportion of my disposable income back in the late 70s when I started than it does now. I think we have cheaped out, to the detriment of our hobby. We download, and we whine and complain about there being too many books etc. In the early eighties, there was (apparently) enough money in gaming that there were dozens of businesses producing a wide variety of games that appeared to support their writers and artists. Sure, quality wasn’t that great, but neither were our expectations. Then in the 3.0 rennaisance, again there were dozens of companies, with the OGL and D20 license. Again, the quality was patchy, but people enjoyed the variety.

    Now, I would argue that Wizards have made a mistake by keeping their license closed, but they have maintained a high quality and fast publications schedule to satisfy most in terms of core rules. As to adventures, they have always consistently stated that they don’t make money doing them. I can see why, and I can’t see a reasonable solution. What do you think needs to change in order to make published adventures better?

    And before you cry foul, I will offer the first suggestion: we create a pool of Creative Commons adventures, that allows for Wiki like editing and critiquing.

  6. @Dominic
    I respect that you’re a little thrown by our dislike of certain parts of 4E. I’ve sent you an email instead of writing a long comment here. I think Jenny’s piece was simply an opinion piece, not a suggestion of how to make it better… though that would certainly be a useful post. I did offer some suggestions in my comment.

    Anyway, check your email, and thanks for reading.

  7. @Paul & @Callyn – LOL! I think I heard a little about that game. I think modules would work better if GM’s used them as a starting off point, and not as a step-by-step walkthrough for the players. It does seem like there is always a point where a player (intentionally or unintentionally) knocks the module off the rails – maybe instead of trying to get the players back onto the rails, it might be easier/more exciting to redraw the tracks and let the players take it from there. Pieces of the module still could be used, just not word for word.

    @morrisonmp – I think it’s interesting – I originally used the prepublished adventure because I was so new and I was genuinely afraid that I would not be able to come up with interesting plotlines and encounters. I viewed it as a guideline that I could follow and still run a passable semester-long adventure and could have a good stepping off point for future play. I think, had my players just wanted to go along with the ride, it would have turned out fine (not dissing my players at all – they just didn’t want to play like that or they didn’t get what they needed from me to be able to see the path to follow).

    There have been ‘mini-adventures’ or strings of encounters that I have enjoyed that Wizards has published – there was a ‘ghost’ town mini-adventure in one of the Dragon issues that I really, really wanted to run (in fact, had my group lasted the entire adventure, that would have probably been next). For me, an adventure that is set up in a bunch of different ‘scenes’ would probably have worked better – I could have had the guidance I needed for the encounters, but the flexibility to roll with my players’ punches. I have found the rigidity in the 4th ed. adventures to be a detriment to easing new GM’s into their roles, instead of helping them.

    @Dominic – I can only imagine how hard it is to write a prepublished adventure – like I mentioned to morrisonmp above, I originally used a prepublished adventure because I didn’t think I could do it (or at least, not the quality of adventure that I wanted to present). There are only so many paths that a writer can create, and only so many scenarios he can come up with. I also truly liked the premise of the particular adventure – I am very sad that we didn’t get to the end of it (I think my group would have really appreciated the direction it went).

    I do understand what you are saying about the time and bug issues – I work in an industry where very similar constraints haunt us daily. There is honestly not enough time to release a perfect project – we fix the main issues and hope that the smaller bugs can be handled in future releases. It’s also a good point that play testers only find the issues that they encounter – my players obviously didn’t play the same way that the Wizards play testers did; otherwise, we wouldn’t have had as many issues as we did.

    Boring encounters – eh, everyone has a group of monsters that thought they would work good together and they don’t – I consider that a small bug. I do think that broken encounters (like the skill challenge I mentioned above) should have been caught in quality control – I do not think that assuming players would be taking extended rests and how that would affect the skill challenge is an unusual test case.

    Unfortunately, I do not have the experience that you and others have with the evolution of tabletop gaming – I only started playing about 4 years ago, and this has been my only experience with the start of a new system – I have dabbled in Warhammer Fantasy 2nd ed. and I’m currently reading into the Dragon Age and Savage Worlds games. I’m only saying this because I’m taking 4th ed. as it is – I do not have anything else really to compare it to.

    From my new player’s perspective, the release schedule for D&D is ridiculous – they are releasing too fast and it is not being play-tested well enough. The design of the game has shifted – PH1’s design principles are very different than even PH2’s, which makes some of the game muddy and hard to mesh together. And maybe it was different in other versions, but I feel that the world that D&D creates is pretty generic – I think part of that is on purpose, but for me, there is very little that distinguishes it from other high fantasy worlds. I know, logically, why they are doing it (to keep players interested, to tailor the game to what the vocal majority seems to want, etc), but I think it dilutes the quality of the game.

    Now, I’m not saying the above solely for the purpose of bashing – and I did not mean for my post to come across as bashy either. It was an opinion based solely on my (very) limited experience with GMing. I have many complaints about 4th ed., but for all of my complaints, 80% of it is a solid game. I like the at-will/encounter/daily power structure; I like the way that almost all of the races can be viable for almost all of the classes; and I like the fact that movement is so important in this game – so important that you need maps to do encounters. I do think there are issues with 4th ed., but I’m not stupid, I know nothing is perfect. I am still playing it, even with all of my complaints. I wanted to put my complaints out in order to see how others deal with them – or if they have encountered what I did at all. I am still new, so I love to hear suggestions and advice from more experienced players/GMs. For me, most of 4th ed. is really very enjoyable, so the things I perceive as broken grate on my nerves just that much more. And the thesis of my post is still valid – I would not recommend someone run a prepublished adventure as is – I would recommend much tweaking and massaging to make it work for the group.

    I love your idea for a Creative Commons collection of adventures – I am the biggest fan of the modding community that is built about computer-based video games. I would love to take part in such a community if it was created (I’m still making my way through the GSL, so I’m not sure it would be allowed, but I can always hope).

    Thanks for your comments – I am very interested in how others view these issues.

  8. […] I’ll be the first to admit that the character deaths in my game were handled not so great: When one character died, the king forced a random PC into their party and when another one left, the group saved the new PC from a hostage situation.  Not the most creative ways to add new players, and it really didn’t the group a reason to trust the new characters.  However, I think I did as well as I could with a bad situation. […]

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