What makes for a truly bad adventure?


Advice

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I'm trying my hand at writing up a proper adventure module, with a fairly complex story, interesting encounters, etc. I'm wondering what people think defines a truly awful adventure. What should I avoid? With both the story and the statistics, what are the worst mistakes a writer can make? As players or GMs using a module, what drives you crazy?

For me, this is sort of an attempt to approach my campaigns differently. As a GM I normally run a loose, open-ended story where I improvise pretty much everything.


Among the worst thing is planning a fight that can't be won to capture the players only to have them rescued by some lowly NPC after the BBEG mocked them.

Another bad thing is railroading.


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One mistake that I've made a lot (particularly when there's a semi-complex story going on) is assuming that the party will do anything.

- Don't assume they will understand clues.
- Don't assume they will make their skill checks.
- Don't assume they won't figure everything out quicker than you anticipated.
- Don't assume they will fail at something.
- Don't assume they will care about a cool backstory for your adventure/NPCs.
- Don't assume they won't retreat.
- Don't assume they will retreat!
- Don't assume they will like or hate someone they're supposed to.

That's just a snippet of the things I've assumed in the past that have led to trouble :)

What I guess I mean is, have back up ideas. They don't have to be fully fleshed out (particularly if it's for your home game, as opposed to an adventure you plan to publish), but not having any backup ideas leads to a tendency to railroad. Yeah, most adventures have a certain amount of railroading involved, but the best ones do it in a way that is largely invisible to the PCs - it's built in to the adventure in a sneaky way. Railroading on the fly is often pretty transparent.

Clichés and tropes are often maligned, but there's a reason they exist. They're familiar, and they give the PCs a link to other great stories. But the trick is to twist them so that just when the party's sure of what's going on, you can spring the surprise.

I'm not sure if that advice is helpful, or what you were looking for, but I'll post more when I think of stuff.

Good luck! Writing a tight and awesome adventure is really tough, but very rewarding when it's a success and your players (or your editor/developer) love it :)

(I'm looking forward to seeing lots of cool posts in this thread!)

Liberty's Edge

All of the above advice is fantastic, especially the bit about the clues. I always use the three-clue rule where every inportant bit of information is found in three different ways (searching, diplomacy, etc.).

I would also like to add that the adventure is about the player characters, not the NPCs. I have seen many an adventure ruined by overwhelming NPCs. Let the players be the stars and always let them be the stars.

I am always reminded of an old Shadowrun adventure where the primary plot is an ages old feud between two powerful NPCs. In the climax of the adventure the player characters sit on the sidelines and watch as the two big bads pummel each other into oblivion. Worst finale ever.


Adventure Path Charter Subscriber

railroading is horrible. You can nudge PCs in a certain direction, but anything more than that will just be counterproductive.

another thing to watch out for is creating a huge and complex backstory that no-one will ever know about

third thing is try to put in a few unique encounters, things that the players will remember. Things like special terrain, special tactics...

If all the encounters are "we see the bad guy, we charge him, we kill him" it can get boring pretty fast.

If you are writing for a specific party, try to put in an encounter designed to allow each PC a moment in the spotlight. For example if a PC has invested heavily in a skill, try to create an encounter where that skill is crucial. Or make an encounter where the arcane caster can use her favorite spell to devastating effect.


littlehewy wrote:

- Don't assume they will understand clues.

- Don't assume they will make their skill checks.
- Don't assume they won't figure everything out quicker than you anticipated.
- Don't assume they will fail at something.
- Don't assume they will care about a cool backstory for your adventure/NPCs.
- Don't assume they won't retreat.
- Don't assume they will retreat!
- Don't assume they will like or hate someone they're supposed to.

Thanks! Those are very helpful actually, I'm trying to put together an investigative/roleplaying heavy story. Here's a much more specific question. Do any of you find the inclusion of NPC quoted text annoying? I find myself doing that a lot, and because I have lots of weird, grotesque characters I feel like it's necessary to evoke their personalities and quirks.

Liberty's Edge

Hi! Just a few items:

Try to avoid maps with huge maze sections, or ultra tight up-over-end levels players can’t follow.

Complicated stories are fine, just be sure to leave extra clues for players to pick up on and find so they stay focused – a complicated story is wasted if they can’t follow it.

Try to avoid the combat grind. Similar monster combat encounters over and over or monsters just to pad an area. Combat after combat can drain both characters and players.

Nothing irks me more than to read a whole paragraph that tells me a room is empty. Either it’s full or empty. Letting me know the room once had a great purpose but is now empty is a waste.

I’ll try to add more as they come to me.


DM's change things when they run games, it happens :P if you include the text, that can give an idea of what the writer intended for the npc.

also: expect the unexpected. our group has broken a few mods just doing something outrageous.


NineHostages wrote:
Thanks! Those are very helpful actually, I'm trying to put together an investigative/roleplaying heavy story. Here's a much more specific question. Do any of you find the inclusion of NPC quoted text annoying? I find myself doing that a lot, and because I have lots of weird, grotesque characters I feel like it's necessary to evoke their personalities and quirks.

You're welcome!

As for boxed NPC quotes, I like it. I don't often use it just as written, but you're right - it gives the GM a sense of the voice of the character, what's different about them, and also what info the character needs to convey. GMs that are well prepared get that sense, then can paraphrase the "script", often in a more interactive way, whereas GMs that are less prepared can read it out and get the point across, albeit in a more stilted way. It's a "no lose" situation: time-strapped GMs have a ready made point of departure for dialogue, those that don't like reading boxed NPC speeches can paraphrase while still having a good example of how the character is intended to interact.


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Examples from the APs that have caused great player pain:

- As mentioned half a dozen times above, the "There's only one way to do things, and they must be done in exactly this order and in exactly this way" approach (railroading)

- The "I must kill a PC in every section to make them know I'm serious" approach (Welcome to Carrion Crown!)

- The "I'm going to provide an NPC who can do EVERYTHING better than the party" approach. (Don't get me wrong -- my party absolutely LOVES Brodert Quink for his Knowledge: History checks and Shalelu for her Survival checks in Rise of the Runelords), but NPCs should:
(a) Be people the party approaches, not people who approach the party
(b) Only be good at very specific niche things the party might lack

- Similar to the railroad, the "You cannot proceed without making an impossibly-high skill check" approach. (Carrion Crown has a point where there's a DC 28 STR check to get through a door for a bunch of 7th-level characters. And provides no other way they're supposed to be able to proceed.)

I'm building a module right now, and I have no idea how the party is going to proceed. I'm putting in the bad guys and their motivations, the NPCs and their motivations, and the rest of the world. And then I'm letting go, and the PCs will dictate the story, rather than the other way around. It's a silly thing to say, but don't plan the plot; plan the world and let the PCs determine the plot.


Make a monster matrix in generally nondescript rooms in a dungeon. Make the dungeon absolutely mindbogglingly oversized and also symmetrical more than one way. Avoid any sort of plotline like the plague. Get the PCs there by a reward of gold. Take every monster straight from the MM. Make sure that spells and magic items and monsters don't follow any particular theme or discernable pattern.


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Sissyl wrote:
Make a monster matrix in generally nondescript rooms in a dungeon. Make the dungeon absolutely mindbogglingly oversized and also symmetrical more than one way. Avoid any sort of plotline like the plague. Get the PCs there by a reward of gold. Take every monster straight from the MM. Make sure that spells and magic items and monsters don't follow any particular theme or discernable pattern.

Most of that's not objectively bad, that's just a difference in playstyle. The last couple of things and the part about symmetry I'd agree with. However, the megadungeon is a perfectly valid style of play, and can be made interesting even without a "plot". In fact, unless you're a skilled GM plot can easily lead to railroading, which is absolute anathema to me.

Sovereign Court

Thanks! Those are very helpful actually, I'm trying to put together an investigative/roleplaying heavy story. Here's a much more specific question. Do any of you find the inclusion of NPC quoted text annoying? I find myself doing that a lot, and because I have lots of weird, grotesque characters I feel like it's necessary to evoke their personalities and quirks.

If you're doing an investigative scenario, I recommend the rule of three. Try to have at least three clues lead to the next scene or location. Don't expect the PCs to figure it out the first time. They'll ignore the first clue, misinterpret the second and then finally figure out the third one.

Also, don't make finding the clues hinged on a Perception check. Make the clue obvious, but the trick will be interpreting the clue. So, leave a letter on the floor, but make the PCs decipher the code words or figure out who wrote it.


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DM Jeff wrote:

Try to avoid the combat grind. Similar monster combat encounters over and over or monsters just to pad an area. Combat after combat can drain both characters and players.

That depends.

If you are in a cave/tomb/dungeon I think it is better to have one type of monster as the "standard denizens" even if that means multiple similar encounters than having 10 different monsters living side by side.

Example, the tomb: Having 3 encounters with small groups of normal skeletons and one encounter with a mix of normal skeletons and fancier stuff (burning skeletons or beheaded or whatever) is better in my opinion than having: 1 skeleton fight, 1 zombi fight, 1 rat swarm, 1 slime and finally some ghouls. It might even better than just 1 small skeleton encounter and then nothing till the boss appears. But that depends on the gaming style.

Shadow Lodge

lordzack wrote:
Sissyl wrote:
Make a monster matrix in generally nondescript rooms in a dungeon. Make the dungeon absolutely mindbogglingly oversized and also symmetrical more than one way. Avoid any sort of plotline like the plague. Get the PCs there by a reward of gold. Take every monster straight from the MM. Make sure that spells and magic items and monsters don't follow any particular theme or discernable pattern.
Most of that's not objectively bad, that's just a difference in playstyle. The last couple of things and the part about symmetry I'd agree with. However, the megadungeon is a perfectly valid style of play, and can be made interesting even without a "plot". In fact, unless you're a skilled GM plot can easily lead to railroading, which is absolute anathema to me.

Weaving a plot into a Megadungeon is tricky, and has to really be done with a light touch, and a player group that is either really good about looking for the clues - as a group that doesn't will miss out on all the plot details, because anything less subtle won't be quite light enough most of the time - or is very amenable to the GM's style.

It's on my to-do list. Mostly due to watching too many LPs of La-Mulana. =)


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Here is some things to keep in mind:

Vary combat: different terrain, enemies, goals.

Offer several choices to the players, which all lead to the goals you have in mind. If you need them to do several things, arrange it such that they can pick the sequence.

If you want them to find something out, place at least three independently accessible clues for them to find.

Keep NPCs in line. Don't let them overshadow the PCs, don't make them do the things the PC should be doing (in particular, don't do all exposition via one NPC, let the Players figure out stuff for themselves.) A prime offender in this regard is the Serpent Skull AP, where late in the campaign, an NPC appears and suddenly bringts the plot around by telling the PCs exactly what is going on and what they have to do about it.

Keep enemies at a manageable level. If you need some to survive, use failsaves rather then making them unbeatable.

Prepare some enemies with basic outlines of personalities such that if one of them should survive an encounter with the PCs, you can use them again but are still willing and able to let them die, if actual play makes that the outcome.

Look to include some opportunity to shine with they particular strength or special features for each PC. This can be based on the abilities (such as an otherwise powerful enemy that can be brought down with an ability) or the story background (e.g. the PCs are admitted into so place or group due to background, status or connections) of the character. Try to include at least one such opportunity per character and Main Part your adventure has. They don't all need to be big.

Consider the pacing of your adventure. To begin with a good and easy structure is:
1. Introductory Action Scene (easy-moderate combat), ideally containing a first pointer (Why are the dead rising? Why did the thieves guild try to assassinate that old man? ...)
2. Role-playing and Investigation Scene Here the players figure out the meaning of the first pointer and what to do next, they also get to meet important NPCs, maybe hear about or meet the final villain without realizing it. (Little Timmy was playing in the old crypt and hear odd chanting but the priest of the sun god scolds him and forbids entry, the town is preparing for the wedding of the duke's daughter)
3. First Main Part. Some action, maybe overland movement, maybe a short dungeon. Typically you want to pressure the PCs now, put on some tension, make the thread become more threatening (While asking around about the crypt, the PCs are attacked by thugs with a skull tattoo, One of them carries a key to the crypt, in the crypt, the PCs are fighting more thugs, then undead and finally a necromancer with more undead)
4. Plot Point, the PCs are lead into a new direction. If this is a short adventure, this could already be the final plot point. (The necromancer reveals that the priest of the sun god is the head of a necromantic cult and wants to sacrifice the duke's daugther in order to summon the bigbad)
5. Role-playing/Investigation/Preparation scene. This leads into a second main part and mainly serves to provide information and power to the PCs that they will need. (The PCs investige the priest and learn that he will bless the duke's daughter in private soon, they also learn about a secret cavern under the sun god's temple. They buy holy water.)
6. Second main part. The big dungeon. (The players fight their way through the secret necrotemple.)
7. Finale. The confrontation with the main villain. Something usually hangs in the balance in order to imcrease tension. (The priest is about to perform the sacrifice. Can the PCs rescue the duke's daughter and prevent the summoning?)
8. Aftermath/Roleplaying. Here the PCs get rewarded, some loose story threads get resolved and hints for future adventures can be seeded. (The PCs are made honorary citizens for saving the city from the bigbad. The duke's daughter gets married. During the wedding, the PCs notice that little timmy is missing.)


NineHostages wrote:

I'm trying my hand at writing up a proper adventure module, with a fairly complex story, interesting encounters, etc. I'm wondering what people think defines a truly awful adventure. What should I avoid? With both the story and the statistics, what are the worst mistakes a writer can make? As players or GMs using a module, what drives you crazy?

For me, this is sort of an attempt to approach my campaigns differently. As a GM I normally run a loose, open-ended story where I improvise pretty much everything.

Any adventure is bad if:

1. the players are not interested
2. you are not having fun

You cannot really predict on how the players will personally react to the adventure until you start it and play a few sessions with it.
If you start to see some loss of interest in your players, then you need to improvise to keep them interested.


Encounters:

Sometimes the PCs should outnumber their enemies, and sometimes the enemies should outnumber the PCs.

Sometimes the PCs should have the opportunity to ambush their enemies, and sometimes the enemies should have set an ambush for the PCs. (And sometimes it should just be 'roll initiative'.)

Some battles should take place in tight corridors and others in open fields. The most memorable encounters are often ones where an unusual environment creates a unique situation, like a battle on a very steep slope, or in a flowing river, or in a building that's on fire.

Encounters with enemies that the players have some feeling about are usually more intense. It's more satisfying to kill the evil wizard who mocked you for being weak than it is to kill a random golem.

It's best if the players are pushed to fight multiple encounters per adventuring day - otherwise their high level spells never run out. For this reason you need some kind of time pressure. But be flexible; you might want to give them a chance to take a breather if, say, a PC dies.


Pathfinder Companion, Maps Subscriber; Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Superscriber; Starfinder Charter Superscriber

One type of adventure that I particularly dislike is one where the NPCs are the active characters and the player characters are just along for the ride. Generally, the adventure has a fixed plot, and the actions of the player characters have at best a minor effect on how events turn out. I prefer things to be at least a little bit open ended.


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Pathfinder Adventure Subscriber

Since you mentioned investigation, there's a couple of links I need to dig up.
Don't Prep Plots, Prep Situations

Three Clue Rule

These basically amount to "assume that your players will not follow the plot you designed, and miss or misinterpret most of the clues you provide".


My best piece of advice is to be flexible as a DM. Allow your players to come up with solutions you didn't and be flexible enough to allow them to work (or to work with slight modifications nudged into play by you). Players love it when they come up with solutions to problems on their own and they work out (often by the skin of their teeth). Enjoy!


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Bad adventure design centers on encounters. Good adventure design centers on choices.


Five words:

A Greg Brady Cloning Machine

Sovereign Court

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A few things:

1) Never, ever run an adventure as if it's you against the players. A GM is an umpire, the PCs and the NPCs are the opposing teams, and the GM just happens to run the NPCs.

2) When I setup and run an encounter, ideally I want the players to all have a bit of fear for their character's lives, and at the end of the session pull through. It doesn't always work out that way, sometimes the characters overpower, every once in a while a character dies. That's my ideal, though.

3) Don't be afraid to pull from other sources. About 5 years ago I ran a Forgotten Realms game set in the Underdark and I borrowed heavily from a few of the WoW dark dwarves settings. None of my players had played WoW, so they all thought it was a great atmosphere. If you have the time, might I suggest the book "The Hero With a Thousand Faces" - it goes into the mythology of heroes and how many stories we all know have similar threads.

edit: fixed my own bad grammar

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Pathfinder Card Game Subscriber

I agree with most of this, but disagree with some of this advice as well:

Quote:
another thing to watch out for is creating a huge and complex backstory that no-one will ever know about

I actually find that creating a backstory, even one the PCs will never find out about, can be very helpful. If I have an idea of the things that are going on in the background, I can much better react when the players veer off in a direction I'm not expecting.

Quote:
Nothing irks me more than to read a whole paragraph that tells me a room is empty. Either it’s full or empty. Letting me know the room once had a great purpose but is now empty is a waste.

This is a tricky concept. The concept of Chekov's Gun exists for a reason, but if you adhere to it too closely you run into the danger of removing all the mystery and discovery from an adventure. You get into situations where the players are thinking, "Hmm, the GM is taking extra time to describe this room when he mostly glossed over all the other rooms, there must be something special about it we need to figure out." I think it's important to at least create a baseline level of description, even for unimportant things, because it adds valuable atmosphere to the game.


Don't leave your Pc's unsatisfied at the end of the adventure. They put alot of time into there chars and if you resolve the story in a way that makes them angry you've failed. Its supposed to be fun. To illustrate I have a gm who like the dark no one really wins type endings. You do everything right but some how you've been tricked the whole time and released the big bad from Ravenloft or all ends lead to badness. This is not what you want when you have spent 6 months playing a char. If you can figure out why your players play and make that pay off at the end your a good gm.

Silver Crusade

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The worst written module I've ever seen is Dragonlance #16, World of Krynn, Lord Soth's Keep (2nd Edition).

1. Premise is 18th level cleric and archmage need lower level characters to enter a death knight's keep. They can't do it themselves.

2. Impossible checks. No matter what the players do, if they approach on the drawbridge, they make noise or are noticed.

3. Idiotic encounters. A lich guarding the bridge attacks. Because it makes sense to have wizards who have sought immortality to stand around guarding bridges in the off chance some adventurer will saunter in. Also included are monsters just waiting in rooms (no ecosystem), all capped by a tarrasque chilling inside the keep in the off chance adventurers make it that far.

4. Not knowing your world. The writer includes monsters not native to the game world. Lots of them.

5. Kill versimilitude. The writer gives drow (not native to the gaming world) names such as "Waynoh Castermaster," "Jake," and "Larri Harriharri."

6. Bad guys that follow no game rules. Bad guy death knight gets to teleport in anytime, throw a fireball or summon a lot of monsters, then escape. Text indicates there's nothing the party can do about it as he taunts them.

Don't ever toss in an expectation that the party *MUST* take a certain action to complete an adventure or the entire campaign is ruined. GMs must be flexible and adapt the game world around the PCs actions, though certain actions like intentionally derailing an adventure for no reason other than to test the patience of the GM is not cool. When possible, anticipate multiple ways to "solve" encounters. If a player must make a DC 30 Perception check to notice the secret latch in order to descend into the dungeon, and there's no other way to keep the adventure going, then you've improperly funneled the adventure down to one check that the party may not be able to make.

Never include any description or text that tells players how they feel, act, etc. Don't ever make players feel like you're reading them a novel and they're along for the ride, rolling dice from time to time that really don't matter because your story will turn out the way you want regardless of the player's actions.


Things that make me switch into "well...gonna have to rework THAT bit..."

A good number of the above comments, especially regarding clues and solving mysteries.

Emphasizing the mundane. Such as a glut of non-challenging combats for the intended level, or cavalcades of skill checks that don't really do anything besides advance the PCs from Point A to Point B with zero satsifying in game effect. Those types of scenarios gobble up precious game time and bore people to tears

Over-use of scripted progression that robs players of choice and interaction. You might squeak by unscathed through player ignorance, acquiescence or blind luck but relying on successful (or unsuccessful) checks/saves, and having NPCs strangely immune to game mechanics is just a total bummer waiting to happen.

Relying on restrictions or difficulties that can be easily circumvented...and then using advanced spells or fiat to render the known workarounds moot. This one is tough, because there are always players that will McGyver the crap out of anything you throw at them to cheese it (Find the Path, Scry and Fry, etc). But you need to know the capabilities of the characters at a given stage of progression. Stuff like dimensional anchor, amulets of non-detection, etc are good tools. But if EVERY encounter and every challenge renders the player characters' fancy new abilities moot...it can blow up on ya.


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A lot of great information and suggestions here. I'll throw in mine as a description of a truly bad campaign I was in, and you should just avoid anything like what happened to me.

Spoiler:
I was in a campaign where no matter what decision we made as a party, there were negative consequences in one way or another. Needed to save a village from marauding orcs? Congrats! You succeeded, but doing so meant that you ignored another village that was being attacked at the same time by a different group of orcs and the village was all slaughtered. Oh, and it's your fault that you weren't able to save them (this was the reaction we got from NPCs).

In a city that's being destroyed by a big bad evil demon? Kill the demon! Congrats! Oh, but why the heck did you allow it to destroy so much of the city. You should have to pay for that. (we were run out of town).

Quite literally every single thing we did had negative consequences, and nothing we did was ever celebrated by any NPC.

As the campaign progressed, I started to notice how we couldn't even accomplish anything on our own. Deus ex machina started happening everywhere. The first time I noticed it was when we were supposed to steal a dragon's egg out from under a dragon. We knew we couldn't kill the dragon. Outside of game, I spent ours trying to come up with various plans to accomplish it, and I probably went back and forth with the other players over email hundreds of times over several weeks. When it came time to actually go in and try it, a powerful NPC showed up with the egg for us. Oh, and that NPC also had a different artifact that we were supposed to get, and we were still trying to figure out how to get it. That artifact was in the hands of a reclusive nation of elves that hated non-elves (and the GM dictated that elf was not a playable race). There went both of those adventures.

One of the other characters had a holy symbol granted to him by his god (literally, his god showed up and gave it to him). At one point he lost it, and about a year later in real life, we had the opportunity to do a side quest to retrieve it. All of us were really excited to take a break from the main campaign and do a mini quest to get our cleric's prized holy symbol back. The next gaming session, a group of representatives from a nation we were trying to ally with showed up, and they had the holy symbol with them and used it as one of their bargaining chips. There went that adventure.

So we ended up making a bargain with the nation and we got the holy symbol back. But it turned out that the representatives weren't actually representatives of the nation, but were actually devils in disguise (we had no way of knowing; this was a low magic campaign, and none of us had access to any spells or magical items that would allow us to differentiate between an outsider from a human). By making the bargain, we ended up opening a gate to Hell and allowed a bunch of devils to pour through and decimate part of the nation we desperately needed to ally with. So not only did we piss off the nation we were trying to ally with, we also pissed of our own nation and demoralized our army for ruining the deal and unleashing devils.

My character had an army of gnomes. We had to go overseas for a while, and I ordered the army to stay at home and await for me to come back. They refused. They decided to build their own ship and sail after me (we took dragons to fly there), which would take about 6 months. Because I knew this, I left orders at every city we stopped at to tell the gnomes (if they were seen) where I would be headed, so they could eventually find me. By the time that entire story arc was over, I never heard from my gnomes. I stated that I would not head back to our homeland without being able to find my gnome army and bring them home too. This was the point where the powerful NPC who happened to have both the dragon egg and the artifact met up with us. She was going to just teleport us home, and I refused. I got outvoted by the party, and we teleported. Lo and behold, there's my gnome army! What do you know! A huge storm had sunk their ship, and the survivors floated back to shore and were taken into slavery. I thought, what a great opportunity to free my gnomes from slavery! This will be a great adventure arc! We start planning how to get my gnomes free, but that game session night, we met up the the leader of the culture that enslaved my gnomes, and the leader said, "Your gnomes are free. I will send out orders to return them to you." And another problem "solved."

I have many more examples from just this one campaign, and from several other campaigns with the same GM, but I'm out of time.

So, with all this, the lessons you should learn are:

1) Don't pull a deus ex machina. Ever.
2) Let your players and their characters solve their own problems. If they need help, give them a little nudge, but don't solve it for them.
3) Allow your players to experience victory with no strings attached. It can be fun sometimes to have other problems arise from a victory, but it shouldn't happen each and every time.
4) Reward your players for good deeds. Grant their characters land in a nation they help (but don't screw them over by giving them cursed lands; that same GM did that to us in a different campaign), or have the NPC's throw them a party. Have word of their good deeds spread, which may give them discounts at some merchants. Things like that.

RPG Superstar Season 9 Top 16

Didn't read the entire topic, don't know if this has been said:

In-game events that turn one or more PCs into spectators. Sometimes PCs will want to spectate, but they should always have the option of participation.


DM Jeff wrote:

Hi! Just a few items:

Try to avoid maps with huge maze sections, or ultra tight up-over-end levels players can’t follow.

Complicated stories are fine, just be sure to leave extra clues for players to pick up on and find so they stay focused – a complicated story is wasted if they can’t follow it.

Try to avoid the combat grind. Similar monster combat encounters over and over or monsters just to pad an area. Combat after combat can drain both characters and players.

And Dungeon Masters! This is what killed 4E for me.


Pathfinder Adventure Path Subscriber
littlehewy wrote:

One mistake that I've made a lot (particularly when there's a semi-complex story going on) is assuming that the party will do anything.

- Don't assume they will understand clues.

Just to emphasize....

- Don't assume the players will connect two (or more) seemingly unrelated events.

As an example from my own experience...

Spoiler:

1) The party suffered a bout of what seemed to be food poisoning at an inn.

2) The next morning we were ordered to find a missing MacGuffin.

We flailed around a while looking for the MacGuffin, but not getting anywhere. Finally the GM looked at us in exasperation and said, "Aren't you guys curious about being poisoned last night?"

And honestly? No, we weren't.

It was late and maybe we were just being really dense, but I'd swear there was nothing in the adventure up to that point connecting the two events beyond them happening within a day of each other. And a bad roll on the random sushi table before we were even given the quest didn't come over as that important.


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As a lot of people have said, don't railroad the players.

Here is a system that I use to help stop that. Just click on Adventure Achievements.


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In addition to what son of the veterinarian said, don't assume players won't connect two things that actually are unrelated. I was running a group who came to a small village to figure some stuff out. In order to add some flavor and detail to the town I mentioned the hanging tree at the edge of town. I used one too many of the kind of words that make players assume the GM is trying to drop hints, like "forlorn" and "haunted." So for the rest of the time in the village every time the players hit a wall they would go back to the tree and look around. Or they would be interviewing someone and they say "don't forget to ask him about the tree," "oh yeah, I ask him about the tree." I let it keep going because it was really funny for me, but in retrospect it was probably really frustrating for the players who believed they were following general campaign plot conventions.

So I guess what I'm saying is find the perfect balance between running the campaign on rails and crafting a fully-realized, intricately-defined sandbox world.


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Udinaas wrote:

In addition to what son of the veterinarian said, don't assume players won't connect two things that actually are unrelated. I was running a group who came to a small village to figure some stuff out. In order to add some flavor and detail to the town I mentioned the hanging tree at the edge of town. I used one too many of the kind of words that make players assume the GM is trying to drop hints, like "forlorn" and "haunted." So for the rest of the time in the village every time the players hit a wall they would go back to the tree and look around. Or they would be interviewing someone and they say "don't forget to ask him about the tree," "oh yeah, I ask him about the tree." I let it keep going because it was really funny for me, but in retrospect it was probably really frustrating for the players who believed they were following general campaign plot conventions.

So I guess what I'm saying is find the perfect balance between running the campaign on rails and crafting a fully-realized, intricately-defined sandbox world.

Oh the dreaded Gazeebo effect.


Wow! Thank you so much for the responses everyone, this is some great advice. I'm feeling kind of stupid for buying the Kobold Guide to Game Design now (not really, it's actually a pretty cool book).

A few things I am hearing consistently -

- Avoid railroading (I'm trying to go as sandbox as possible while still having it be investigation-focused)

- Let the players be in the spotlight, and let them feel rewarded (I do get attached to my NPC's, but yes, absolutely)

- Don't let back-story dominate the text (another personal pitfall of mine, I love Rise of the Runelords for it's attention to detail and atmosphere, but I see that there are lines to be drawn)

Here's something I'm hung up on. Some people are saying that in a "mystery-style adventure", you shouldn't place impassable brick walls in front of the players, in the form of tough skill checks or obscure clues. Other people are saying that you shouldn't hold the players hands as they work through the story, and that they should feel like they're accomplishing something. It's honestly a tough balance to strike, for me anyway. Right now I'm considering just having a fail-safe event occur after a period of time that points the investigators toward the final dungeon, where all questions will be answered. If they solved any previous mysteries, they will be better prepared and better informed about what they are facing, but they still get to go fight the Big Bad. Does that reduce the importance of their investigations to mere side quests? Am I being too nice here!?


Try to not allow for only one way to bypass a problem. If they dont find it, the players will be annoyed.


and never ever base your plot on a uwe boll movie.


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One piece of general mechanical advice is try to avoid solo "Boss" encounters.

Action economy generally makes this encounters much less difficult and engaging then an encounter with a "Boss" with identical fluff slightly toned down stats and some allies/lieutenants/mooks.


Don't be afraid to let a PC die just to keep the campaign going. Yes, the DM has a story to tell. Yes, the players are controlling the main characters in that story. But the characters can die and be replaced. I have often found that if the players are aware the DM won't kill a PC, then the players just start doing ridiculously outrageous things because, hey, I know the DM isn't going to let anything bad happen.

Dark Archive

I dislike when I have to go through several hours of RP before a combat pops up. I also dislike having to go through several hours of RP seeing everything fits in the right place after all the fights happening one right after the other.


Raymond Lambert wrote:
I dislike when I have to go through several hours of RP before a combat pops up. I also dislike having to go through several hours of RP seeing everything fits in the right place after all the fights happening one right after the other.

Are you saying that you just don't like RP, or are you saying that combat should be sprinkled more evenly throughout the night?


Mykull wrote:
Don't be afraid to let a PC die just to keep the campaign going. Yes, the DM has a story to tell. Yes, the players are controlling the main characters in that story. But the characters can die and be replaced. I have often found that if the players are aware the DM won't kill a PC, then the players just start doing ridiculously outrageous things because, hey, I know the DM isn't going to let anything bad happen.

This can be a double edged sword. Don't kill of a pc just to make your point but don't get them the feeling that they can't die.

I once had a pc which I didn't enjoy because I build him for heavy roleplaying and what I got was heavy roll-playing. The gm didn't want me to change my pc (I asked him and he said no) so I tried to get myself killed.
No chance, whatever I did, I came out living.

Spoiler:
We were playing in the world of ravenloft, using the 3.0 rules and my pc was a human barbarian bard.
In the end I rushed into combat, totally unarmored, raging, swinging my greataxe at the most dangerous opponent I could find on the battlefield.
My best try got me to -7hp (with -10 meaning you're dead) when I was stabilized.


Agreed. That's why, as a DM, I roll all my dice in front of the players. That way they know I'm being the impartial umpire. This can suck:

The Other Night:
I'm running Shackled City (in PF). Two weeks ago, the paladin forces a gear door in Jzadirune, setting off the Ray of Frost trap. And get's five rays launched at him.
First Attack: 20
Confirmation: 20
Re-Confirmation: 13 (it's only a touch attack, so it confirms)

Second Attack: 20
Confirmation: 14

Third Attack: 20
Confirmation: 12

Fortunately, I rolled low on damage and my critical hit chart. He limped out of Jzadirune hamstrung (-10 to movement until you receive a cure serious wounds or better and without a tongue (mute until you receive a regenerate).

I retired the first d20 for the night after the first ray.
Then I had to retire the second d20 for the night.


Pathfinder Card Game Subscriber
Mykull wrote:
Agreed. That's why, as a DM, I roll all my dice in front of the players. That way they know I'm being the impartial umpire.

I'm trying really hard to continue doing this. Unfortunately I seem to have terrible luck when rolling for monsters and opponents and several encounters in my game have been pretty anti-climatic because the enemies couldn't hit the PCs at all or failed easy saves.


Monsters that don't fit into rooms.

One thing you need to do is be flexible with your clue DCs, if the PCs are failing all of them, lower them. Be ready to have NPCs point them in the right direction, this doesn't have to be blatant but a nudge now and then will get them moving the right way. Don't be afraid to have the occasional "red herring" either, not everything has to be tied into the plot. Be consistent with the nudging too, occasionally nudge them towards things they have already done.


Pathfinder Adventure Path Subscriber
Chaos_Scion wrote:
Don't leave your Pc's unsatisfied at the end of the adventure. They put alot of time into there chars and if you resolve the story in a way that makes them angry you've failed. Its supposed to be fun. To illustrate I have a gm who like the dark no one really wins type endings. You do everything right but some how you've been tricked the whole time and released the big bad from Ravenloft or all ends lead to badness. This is not what you want when you have spent 6 months playing a char. If you can figure out why your players play and make that pay off at the end your a good gm.

As an addendum to this, after they have killed the final boss of the AP, don't have some basically invincible uber-monster turn up and tell them that all they have done is inconsequential to the true villain, who was only lightly inconvenienced by all their heroics and his true plan will unfold nonetheless. At least not unless you are planning to continue the campaign.

Paizo did this at least once in their APs.

Sovereign Court

NineHostages wrote:
Here's something I'm hung up on. Some people are saying that in a "mystery-style adventure", you shouldn't place impassable brick walls in front of the players, in the form of tough skill checks or obscure clues. Other people are saying that you shouldn't hold the players hands as they work through the story, and that they should feel like they're accomplishing something. It's honestly a tough balance to strike, for me anyway. Right now I'm considering just having a fail-safe event occur after a period of time that points the investigators toward the final dungeon, where all questions will be answered. If they solved any previous mysteries, they will be better prepared and better informed about what they are facing, but they still get to go fight the Big Bad. Does that reduce the importance of their investigations to mere side quests? Am I being too nice here!?

Well, consider this. The investigators are investigating a room with a clue. There's a Perception check to find the clue. Nobody succeeds at the Perception check. Now what?

I think it's better to put the clue there, and if anyone asks the right question, just hand it to them. If nobody thinks of the right question, ask for the Perception check. For example: they're investigating a murder, and the PCs are in the victim's bedroom. You've mentioned that there's a desk with some papers lying on it. If any player investigates the papers, they'll find a threatening note. If nobody asks, ask for a Perception check to find a threatening note.

Players might still fail of course. In that case it's good to have a nonlinear adventure. The PCs can investigate the bedroom, or the crime scene, or question the victim's relatives. If investigating his bedroom didn't work at first, the PCs can try something else. And that may lead them back to the bedroom; maybe one of the victim's relatives mentioned that the victim told him about receiving a threatening note.

You could also build in a "cooldown" on retries; if nobody finds the note at first, but they come back next day, maybe they notice it this time. After all, a detective might retrace his steps to look for clues he missed the first time.

---

Another thing: how to railroad less.

First, figure out who the major NPC actors are, and what they want. Then figure out what they've done so far, and what they know so far.

Second, enter the PCs; they encounter the plot while it's already somewhat in motion. The PCs do stuff, talk to people, start fights.

The NPCs still haven't achieved all their goals. The NPCs have plans on how to complete those, but if circumstances change, they'll change their plans as well.

Knowing what an NPC wants to achieve will help in talking with PCs; that way you can adapt to weird PC tactics.

A side effect of this though, is that the farther into the future something is, the more possibilities. You can't plan the end of a long adventure this way.

My own approach is to think 1-3 sessions in advance, and after the game session, I start revising my plans based on what the PCs did.

Obviously, this doesn't work all that well in publishing an adventure. In that case you can try the following: establish a deadline for the climax. At a certain point, an unstoppable external force will do something. Maybe everyone's trapped in a snowed-in hotel, there's been a murder. If the bad guy can evade the investigators until the snowstorm ends, he can escape. So as the storm abates the climax draws near - failure to push for a climax means at least one faction loses.

You can do this in all manner of situations. The war needs to be won before winter, because then the army can't be supplied anymore (Russian Winter syndrome). If we don't capture Moscow before that we lose.

This ship will dock in a week; we have to capture the badguy before that.

The badguy's boss is coming. He'll be here in a week. We need to stop his cult before he gets here; together they'll be unstoppable.

... and so forth. A deadline provides the "push" for encounters to happen.

Sovereign Court

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Komoda wrote:

As a lot of people have said, don't railroad the players.

Here is a system that I use to help stop that. Just click on Adventure Achievements.

Very interesting.

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