Slave to the module

Raleel

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Reading the 4e The enemy Within thread about railroads and experiencing a pf2e game, I’m somewhat surprised that we still deal with experienced GMs who are also not very good GMs and are also not aware they are not very good GMs.

I don’t think I’m looking for advice here, per se, as the advice is talk to the person and all of that. However, there was an attempt to get my GM to tactic up the combat a bit, and they rebuffed it immediately, saying that’s what the module said. This strikes me as sort of self imposed railroading, which I find kind of interesting.

We all know railroading sort of sucks, and yet the desire to conform to the structure that is presented is there. I’ve felt that. I’ve done that I’m sure. In my GMs case, it’s chronic over multiple times - a tendency to run these big sandbox campaigns. He’s done hoard of the dragon queen, Storm king’s thunder, and now this one. none of these are well put together to just run beginning to end, even the railroad ones.

Writing this out, I’m seeing that there is a desire to do a big epic campaign where the heroes save the world. This is great, and a long running campaign is very satisfying. But also it’s kind of missing the thing that we learn when getting into “being a good GM” which is to start small.

this is a bit of a ramble, as it’s consumed a fair bit of thought and there are a lot of pieces - my desire to help, my knowledge this person is going to get very defensive, my desires to let them learn and for me to have fun (which I’m not), long long friendship, the publishing of adventures and how they are not well catered to learning how to GM,, and many other things.

my group functionally has 3 GMs. We have one guy who is very natural, but he can’t seem to stick to a campaign more than half a dozen sessions. We have myself, who is pretty tenacious, but every step is learning and I spent a lot of time on learning how to GM, then we have this person who I don’t think spends any time on it and is not improvisational either. I feel like we have the entire GM community pretty well represented right there.

ok, this is a lot of a stream of consciousness but I’m sure someone will find something to discuss in it! Adventure railroads, GMs railroading themselves, learning to GM, etc.
 

Dyrnwyn

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I think starting small is a big part of it. This is why I think dungeon crawls and other site-based adventures are so useful in the beginning -- there are more guardrails (often literal physical boundaries) and a more limited range of interactions, but still enough to be interesting if it's put together well.

But yeah, these days it feels like everything has to be EPIC or else many people aren't interested.
 

Raleel

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I think starting small is a big part of it. This is why I think dungeon crawls and other site-based adventures are so useful in the beginning -- there are more guardrails (often literal physical boundaries) and a more limited range of interactions, but still enough to be interesting if it's put together well.

But yeah, these days it feels like everything has to be EPIC or else many people aren't interested.
Ironic, as my group kind of is thriving on episodic stuff. I’ve started using various tv shows a guides. Episodic things, overarching plot that becomes apparent
 

Caesar Slaad

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I often struggle with published adventures, and it takes a bit of courage for me to "color outside the lines" when running one. But that's in large part because if I am using a module, I am doing so to save time and I don't want to become a studied expert in the adventure; I want to run it and move on. So my reading is often cursory and I have learned if I brush off a detail early in the adventure, it might come back to bit me later in the adventure when something is built on that detail.

I think that this conundrum is fairly easily avoided if the adventure is either or both flexible and/or spells out important details without a lot on unnecessary fluff so that I can digest the adventure quickly. Sadly, too many published adventures fail on those points.
 

JAMUMU

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When I was coming up I had exactly one GM with a style I wanted to emulate. Everything else in my GM toolbox was a reaction *against* all the other GMs I played with. That the first GM became a pretty well known RPG designer isn't a coincidence, I don't think.

So I tried to be flexible, fair, unbiased, improvisational, player character driven, fun, beholden to no metaplot, capable of going off-piste and homebrewing material. But it took many attempts and a good few years before I could run anything that lasted a decent amount of time. There were always players willing to play my games, but it was a crapshoot whether it got off the ground or crashed after three sessions.

Nowadays I'm still the same GM, but my games can last years because I'm much better at defining what *I* want to run, then having the players help flesh it out as we go. I put this down to more modern game design, which made this style of play not just okay, but empowering for the whole group.There's also a universe of free, accessible material to hack around and play with to make creation easier.

I also think there's an inappropriate amount of textual fidelity in the RPG space. Slavish adherence/adoration of the rules/story was never my jam, but there's really no need for it these days. Not when we know games and modules are being written by freelancers while they're on the toilet at their day job, barely (if at all) playtested and quite often presented completely differently to how the designer actually runs their own games.

Edit: TL/DR - Modules are always shit in some way, they can always be improved.
 
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hawkeyefan

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So the title of a book by Joe Abercrombie is taken from a quote from Homer: “The blade itself incites to deeds of violence.”

I’ve found this to be really relevant to written adventures.

When I run a game where it’s based on my own stuff, I’m perfectly comfortable winging it and improvising as needed. Honestly, it’s my preferred method.

But when I’m using written material, I can’t help but feel the need to adhere to it as closely as I can. It’s an odd phenomenon. I can get past it… but my default thinking tends to be to stick to it. It takes a conscious effort to stop worrying about it.

Like I ran the 5E adventure Tomb of Annihilation. The first part went fine… it’s a hexcrawl through the jungle. Plenty of room for the players to wander and for me to just do whatever in response. But once we reached the Tomb itself, everything became so procedural… it shifted to a more classic dungeon delving type of approach. And honestly, that doesn’t really fit 5e… or at least, certainly not the way we play it.

The players started turtling bad, and I was adhering to things too closely. It became a negative feedback loop. Finally, I realized it and adjusted. I also talked about it with my players. After that, I was just using the book as a starting point and riffing off of what the players did and not worrying about what was written. The game improved quite a bit after that.

That was the last time I tried to run anything prewritten of that scope. I think the appeal of these things is misunderstood. People figure they’re time-savers. I don’t think they are at all. A 16 page module like those of old? That’s manageable. A 256 page book? Not a time saver. Especially not the way they’re written.
 

Nick J

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The more modules I've read the more I'm convinced that 95% of them are no good at teaching people how to run a game. Most of them are shitty railroads, with cliche NPCs, dumb "find the McGuffin" plots, and seem like they are written by frustrated novelists vs. actual game designers. Raleel Raleel I have no idea what module(s) your friend is reading and trying to follow, but my guess is that they aren't doing any favors for his expectations for how a game should flow. I was always fighting against the modules I was buying/reading figuring that I must be doing something wrong, until it dawned on me that most so-called designers don't know shit about fuck.

I don't know if this helps your situation, but I wonder if gifting him some adventures/modules that read more like frameworks that require a GM to fill in some blanks would be helpful in nudging him out of his pattern? Stuff like Zzarchov Kowolski's Scenic Dunnsmouth was a bit of a revelation for me when I read it.
 
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opaopajr

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As much as I rag on Adventure League, First Season had *some* tiny micro-adventures that were very low stakes and constrained in its scope of time and space, e.g. 'dungeon foyer' area. The idea was that these could be played in less than 4 hours, ideally with time to spare (I know, very WotC, hook 'em quick, first hit's free). But I bring them up because it was also a good indicator for whether someone has the chops to elaborate upon the experience, to play with what they had on offer.

One example is this pretty straight forward (Moonsea area, Phlan city) Valhingen Mausoleum in the shape of a spiral with several special trap doors. Now, there's an obvious undead ambush, where one can run to the end, beat the big baddie, "collect the power up and lore" and "beat the level." But there's also interesting tidbits and interactable objects all over which could be expanded upon.

Those few months with that micro-adventure was like a sample diagnostic test for GMs. There's no right answer, naturally. But it revealed who could whip up something and keep things engaging, versus those who were more hidebound to and direct with the scant material. I saw with lighting, closed quarters, unforeseen secret doors (with penalties for PC usage), strange decor & writings, technical possible communication with zombies (5e zombies *can* understand languages they knew in life, they just can't speak; not a hard puzzle to solve), etc. potential you can really play with for players' tactics on through to their campaign aspirations.

The question is whether they are aware, inspired to do so, and open to seeking help to improve. Sometimes people are not even aware they are allowed. Sometimes people are aware, but they are not interested. And so on until finally there are those who are aware, are inspired, and open to seeking help to achieve their dream. That is naturally a smaller number.

But those micro-adventures were so constrained that it helped me isolate those GMs who had awareness, potential, and interest in doing something more with the content. Once you understand that you have an idea how to modulate your own expectations of the GM. Sounds like you have your own read of your situation, and it is lamentable but unchangeable. But in answer to your broader lament, this method of observing new GMs with very tight content could be a tool to categorize their talent, skills, interest, and readiness.
 

bleys21

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I'm struck by two things that Raleel Raleel mentioned: First, has been mentioned, that the adventure/campaign material we're seeing just isn't really that good, especially for less experienced GM's. The second thing that struck me was the tendency to point at the same source material and say, "That's what's in the book!" and that's the end of the conversation.

These days, I've become a "mostly say yes" GM, willing to hear what the player(s) want to do, and as long as it doesn't stupidly stretch reality within that game world, just say, "Sure!" and look up/make up some rules to cover it. I can't take credit for figuring this method out myself; I give full credit to Erick Wujcik, who wrote and published Amber DRPG, and then ran a totally unrelated game for us some years after that, and basically said yes to about any weird shit we came up with or tried to do. Which is seriously fun, both as a player and a GM.
 

Baulderstone

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One of things I like about TEW that people frequently complain about is that it is kind of a shaggy dog tale. You got though a series of adventures, and those adventures have consequence, but there isn't one particular big bad behind the the problems the Empire is facing. You have decadent nobles, graping merchants, religious conflicts, multiple chaos cults that hate each other, the Skaven and others all causing the instability of the Empire. You might be dealing with one or more of these at any particular point in the campaign or something else entirely.

Some people were hoping the new edition would tie everything together in a neat bow, but I would hate that. Not only would it weaken the theme of chaos pulling the Empire apart to have Chaos be monolithic, it would make it harder to run. You end up with situations where an NPC introduced early on needs to come back for the final act, and if the players kill them early, they've derailed your whole campaign. It also just makes it easier to change things to suit you and your groups tastes without it creating problems down the road.
 

bleys21

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And crap, I forgot one other thing... and again, I stole this/was influenced by a GM I met and played games with in the last 5 years: he never worried if the PC plans totally derailed his plot. If we came up with some seriously cool way to solve the entire situation in one easy step, he'd just roll with it, instead of trying to adjust it, or make it not work, etc. And its super rewarding as a player when your cool idea *works*. So I try to use that too, in conjunction with saying yes a lot.
 

opaopajr

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I don't have any real, intelligent, thing to offer at the moment, but my sleep addled brain just read "Slave to the Noodle" and I thought that was funny.

:grin: Aaaand that's the title to a story/adventure about College Kids scraping by on cheap ramen! :eat: Write quickly before someone less capable wastes this gem!

I often struggle with published adventures, and it takes a bit of courage for me to "color outside the lines" when running one. But that's in large part because if I am using a module, I am doing so to save time and I don't want to become a studied expert in the adventure; I want to run it and move on. So my reading is often cursory and I have learned if I brush off a detail early in the adventure, it might come back to bit me later in the adventure when something is built on that detail.

I think that this conundrum is fairly easily avoided if the adventure is either or both flexible and/or spells out important details without a lot on unnecessary fluff so that I can digest the adventure quickly. Sadly, too many published adventures fail on those points.

I think this was a huge part of why I could watch dispassionately this micro-adventure as a diagnostic tool: it is short and we used it often. It is just like one of the exercises artists recommend for improvement is pick one image and draw/paint it again and again, ideally at routine intervals. Similarly you see this advice for cooking, crafting, sewing, and other arts, too. Once familiarity sets in, and muscle memory can be relied upon, one can refine the experience and start to 'color outside the lines'.

However until then... lack of confidence as yes the details overwhelm.

[...]
But when I’m using written material, I can’t help but feel the need to adhere to it as closely as I can. It’s an odd phenomenon. I can get past it… but my default thinking tends to be to stick to it. It takes a conscious effort to stop worrying about it.

[...]

That was the last time I tried to run anything prewritten of that scope. I think the appeal of these things is misunderstood. People figure they’re time-savers. I don’t think they are at all. A 16 page module like those of old? That’s manageable. A 256 page book? Not a time saver. Especially not the way they’re written.

I agree that published adventures don't save as much time as they sell themselves to be. Seeing those big 5e adventures in practice -- and I advised new GMs to read chapters beforehand and practice ahead of time as if for a play -- it still was A LOT to digest. If broken apart with side quest excursions so as to stretch out the content it worked waaay better. However AL considerations often put a time expectation pressure, and that's a whole other commentary.

Those big modules can be seen as a compilation of several smaller modules within a broader campaign, which is a great structure for collecting, and for comparing and contrasting within for a deeper read to create new improvisational content. One could see it as TPBs trade paperback books for comics that came out as single issue floppies. Yet people often read it with looming expectation, like having to eat Thanksgiving turkey for a week straight. Sometimes form sets its own imprint on function.
 

hawkeyefan

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I think my issue with modern adventures (or many of them, anyway) is the sequencing that is assumed. They follow the adventure path method… first this which leads to that, and then the next thing, and so on.

Such a method assumes so much about what will happen that it becomes hard not to railroad. It’s not necessarily always the case, but it seems much more likely.

After the situation with Tomb of Annihilation I mentioned above, i’ve changed the way I look at any prewritten adventure material. Some stuff works well.

There are scenarios for Spire called “campaign frames” which give you a situation and the players involved and that’s it. Very little along the lines of “…and once the PCs do this, then that happens”.

I’ve found the same to be true of some of the Mothership modules. A Pound of Flesh is a kind of sandbox on a space station, with different factions and situations you can use however you like. Gradient Descent is a megadungeon that the players can interact with in a number of ways.

I’m always on the lookout for that A-B-C-D type sequencing of events. If a module avoids that, then it may be worthwhile.
 

Telok

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Had a nasty module basically shut off two inexperienced DMs. System was set up that characters absolutely must have a certain amount of gear of a specific cost in order to... well, lets say it was like playing a fps game and never picking up anything other than the very first starter gun.

The adventure, aside from completely failing to account for any character abilities that exceeded "walk forward and punch things", presented to the players as a timed "catch up to the bad guys before they reach the end" when it was really a speed of plot where you needed to do the side quests to have enough gear and xp to do the last third of the adventure without a bunch of hideous grindy near certain failure fights.

After we ended up dropping the game I checked out the adventure. Yeah, zero advice on needing to do the sidequests to have the right amount of xp & gear and nothing about what to do if the players believe you constantly telling them "the bad guys just left, you have to hurry to can catch them before <next step>".
 

EmperorNorton

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:grin: Aaaand that's the title to a story/adventure about College Kids scraping by on cheap ramen! :eat: Write quickly before someone less capable wastes this gem!
Strange things are happening at the Wizard college. Vandalism with odd symbols that cannot be erased. Things going missing. And the PCs and several other students are waking up in places they don't remember going to. Can they figure out the seasoning packets in the instant noodles in the shop by campus have been spiked with a mind control potion and find the culprit before they unleash a terrible ritual using the odd symbols and missing components? (There will be one student who never blacks out but eats the instant noodles to throw them off... they have to discover he is a weirdo who throws out the flavor packet).

or something like that.

(Edit: This also reminds me of a character I pitched when my brother wanted to start a PF2e game, of a Wizard working under an assumed name to hide from his student loan debt from Wizard College who was adventuring to try to pay it all back)
 
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Bourbonjack

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The more modules I've read the more I'm convinced that 95% of them are no good at teaching people how to run a game. Most of them are shitty railroads, with cliche NPCs, dumb "find the McGuffin" plots, and seem like they are written by frustrated novelists vs. actual game designers. Raleel Raleel I have no idea what module(s) your friend is reading and trying to follow, but my guess is that they aren't doing any favors for his expectations for how a game should flow. I was always fighting against the modules I was buying/reading figuring that I must be doing something wrong, until it dawned on me that most so-called designers don't know shit about fuck.

I don't know if this helps your situation, but I wonder if gifting him some adventures/modules that read more like frameworks that require a GM to fill in some blanks would be helpful in nudging him out of his pattern? Stuff like Zzarchov Kowolski's Scenic Dunnsmouth was a bit of a revelation for me when I read it.
Absolutely agree with the part about “frustrated novelists”.
 

Silverlion

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I rarely use written adventures, but one of the things I do is to always use them as an outline at best with some bits and pieces of scenes that are usable if possible. Trying to stick too closely to it with player hijinks isn't beneficial.
 

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Is there also a desire to do these campaigns "properly"? To partake in a kind of more general experience of having done the campaign? Is there a sense that if you change up the module than you lose an element of being part of that wider experience?
 

Moonglum

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I have pretty strong opinions about this general subject area. I like commercial modules and own a lot of them, but only value ones that describe places, people (and monsters) and things without pressing the idea of a pre-fab plot/story. This naturally steers me into the OSR, where descriptive, details-oriented modules are the norm and 'story' modules are less common, and away from things from 5E D&D or recent products for most other games, which almost always frame the idea of the module around a story line. I'd rather flush 20 bucks down the toilet than buy a module that presents a plot or story.

I also basically agree that gamers who only run or play prefab, story-line-based modules are missing an essential experience, and in some sense aren't DM'ing or even playing an rpg at all (in the classic sense of the way sandbox games were structured when the hobby started). The obvious counter is that all critiques of 'bad wrong fun' are stupid, and perhaps that's true. But I think you really don't know what rpg's are all about until you sat down with a basic rule book and a pad of blank paper, created a small setting, and then run a freeform, sandbox-style session in which the players' decisions determine the 'story', not some preconceived idea you had about what would take place.
 

gruagach

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I often struggle with published adventures, and it takes a bit of courage for me to "color outside the lines" when running one. But that's in large part because if I am using a module, I am doing so to save time and I don't want to become a studied expert in the adventure; I want to run it and move on. So my reading is often cursory and I have learned if I brush off a detail early in the adventure, it might come back to bit me later in the adventure when something is built on that detail.

I think that this conundrum is fairly easily avoided if the adventure is either or both flexible and/or spells out important details without a lot on unnecessary fluff so that I can digest the adventure quickly. Sadly, too many published adventures fail on those points.

This was me for years, as I was learning to GM. It took me a long time to get comfortable coloring outside the lines. I would've helped so much if my early days in the hobby we'd had a "mentor" of sorts who could show us the ropes and provide advice.

<snip>

Edit: TL/DR - Modules are always shit in some way, they can always be improved.

This so much. No published module fits my expectations or desires perfectly. These days, I might use a module or published campaign material as a jumping off point, and add my own twists into the material.

I especially try to open up the material, and have it be more amenable to a kind of "sandbox" style play, where the players get to make meaningful choices, and I try to have the NPCs and the world around them react in logical ways.

Is there also a desire to do these campaigns "properly"? To partake in a kind of more general experience of having done the campaign? Is there a sense that if you change up the module than you lose an element of being part of that wider experience?

I definitely think there's some of that going on - the idea that in playing through a given module or campaign, one is participating in a larger community. I also think there's sometimes nostalgia involved. For example, I have really found memories of running White Plume Mountain as a young person - and I've run it several times in the last decade and enjoyed it immensely. But it too is really, objectively, not a good adventure.

More generally, I'll repeat something I've said elsewhere at the Pub recently: I really do know, and have played with, players to prefer a railroad. They want a plot driven adventure. They want obvious clues and hooks that point out "DO THIS NEXT" in big glowing neon colors. They want to look back at a session, short campaign, or longer campaign, and be able to articulate a story - and not just one arising from the player characters' actions.
 

PolarBlues

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I'm not sure I've ever run a published scenario as written. Maybe with Pendragon? But I generally find something I object to, that doesn't makes sense to me or that I can tailor to suit my player and style of GM.

That said I think there is a subtle difference between altering a published scenario as part of the general game prep, and doing so during play as a reaction to how well or poorly the party is performing, which is I think what is suggested in the original post, if I understood this correctly.

I don't think there is a right or wrong way of doing this, but there are two perfectly valide sides to the argument. One may say it is good GM to basically read the room and adjust predetermined aspects of the game to fit the mood around the table; the aim after all is for everyone to have fun.

Another may argue that the character should succeed or fail on their own merits, any adjustment the GM makes aimed to either help or hinder the party that isn't purely based on the internal logic of the world detracts from the player's agency. Or in simpler terms, at one point do the GMs notes become "facts" in the game world? How much retconning and Schrodinger's cats are you comfortable with?

I admit I flip flop on this one. Mostly though I try to catch these things during game prep, which probably adds to my game prep angst.
 

SJB

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Give your GM a copy of B1 In Search of the Unknown and have him run it as a one off for you guys. It has some advice and requires some assembly so may be helpful to him in learning to make a module his own.
What would we choose as an “emergency intervention kit”; the multi-genre list of scenarios/adventures/modules that we would issue to a struggling DM to show her how to do it? (We can perhaps leave the subtleties of relationship management out of the exercise; no-one is going to drop a pile of modules into the DM’s lap, saying, “read these, you’re cr*p.)

We have B1. Much as I love TEW it’s hardly a teaching tool. Something for OSE? I’d choose Jaquay’s Dark Tower (for factions and Jaquaying the dungeon). People speak highly of The Enchanted Wood too. For me personally, White Dwarf adventures were the thing. I think I’d choose Bob McWilliams’s Sable Rose Affair as an early example of how to put together a heist.
 

CRKrueger

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One of things I like about TEW that people frequently complain about is that it is kind of a shaggy dog tale. You got though a series of adventures, and those adventures have consequence, but there isn't one particular big bad behind the the problems the Empire is facing. You have decadent nobles, graping merchants, religious conflicts, multiple chaos cults that hate each other, the Skaven and others all causing the instability of the Empire. You might be dealing with one or more of these at any particular point in the campaign or something else entirely.

Some people were hoping the new edition would tie everything together in a neat bow, but I would hate that. Not only would it weaken the theme of chaos pulling the Empire apart to have Chaos be monolithic, it would make it harder to run. You end up with situations where an NPC introduced early on needs to come back for the final act, and if the players kill them early, they've derailed your whole campaign. It also just makes it easier to change things to suit you and your groups tastes without it creating problems down the road.
The GM at least kind of gets the sense by the end that the Tzeentch demon was behind things with the logic of a Chaos Demon. The GM also gets the sense that someone might be putting their thumb on the scale in the player's favor, but it's so subtle this is all at the Cosmic Chess level. What follows is certainly not a tale about Fated Heroes or an Epic Struggle. GM's famously got frustrated with players taking a year off as Riverboat Captains, but that's really perfect for TEW. It's not really supposed to seem like a single flowing campaign.
 

Winterblight

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Absolutely agree with the part about “frustrated novelists”.
I've been hearing this for 30 years. The more I hear it (I may even have uttered it once) the less I think it's true. Writing is a skill, it's something that you get better at if you persist, designing adventures is difficult, it's something you get better at. Writing something you think is cool, often isn't. I feel that the 'frustrated novelist' is, I don't know, maybe just a bit disingenuous. Yeah, I'm sure there is an example here or there, but I've quite a collection of adventures for multiple systems but I've never once thought that guy failed to write a novel so they took out their frustrations on the gaming community by forcing all their ideas into an adventure module. Maybe they are just shite at writing adventures and haven't got good yet? I've read plenty of crap novels. Never once heard anyone say 'that guy's a frustrated adventure module writer'.
 

TJS

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I think it’s less that people would literally be rather writing a novel but more that they’re working backwards from a narrative model that doesn’t have the peculiarities of rpgs.

scene 3: “the dead body is discovered and opening its clenched fist reveals the cryptic clue which the detective will figure out is the number of a storage locker” is fine in a more narrative medium, but in a rpg it has multiple points of failure.
 

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The GM at least kind of gets the sense by the end that the Tzeentch demon was behind things with the logic of a Chaos Demon. The GM also gets the sense that someone might be putting their thumb on the scale in the player's favor, but it's so subtle this is all at the Cosmic Chess level. What follows is certainly not a tale about Fated Heroes or an Epic Struggle. GM's famously got frustrated with players taking a year off as Riverboat Captains, but that's really perfect for TEW. It's not really supposed to seem like a single flowing campaign.
Exactly. One potential problem with TEW is that it can get in the way of players pursuing their careers. Death on the Reik provides an opportunity for players to pursue their own agendas for a while.

The 4e version of TEW improves over the original at the end of Power Behind the Throne by providing another point in the campaign where players can do their own thing. In the original, they only get a few days in Middenheim before being shoved off to Kislev. As a GM running TEW at the time, it really frustrated me to have the wonderful book on Middenheim and barely any time to use it.
 

Agemegos

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More generally, I'll repeat something I've said elsewhere at the Pub recently: I really do know, and have played with, players to prefer a railroad. They want a plot driven adventure. They want obvious clues and hooks that point out "DO THIS NEXT" in big glowing neon colors. They want to look back at a session, short campaign, or longer campaign, and be able to articulate a story - and not just one arising from the player characters' actions.
I went through an illusionist railroady phase during which I constructed plots so tightly that PCs would be driven by their own motivations always to go (with at most some choice of which route they took to the next landmark) to the confrontations I had planned in the situations I had planned, their free will itself driving them along predestined courses. I gave it up because it took too much work to prep and was too little fun to GM. And when I did, when my players faced in consequence real risks of failure and anticlimax, two players begged me to go back to my old style. I looked down and whispered “no”.
 
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gruagach

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What would we choose as an “emergency intervention kit”; the multi-genre list of scenarios/adventures/modules that we would issue to a struggling DM to show her how to do it? (We can perhaps leave the subtleties of relationship management out of the exercise; no-one is going to drop a pile of modules into the DM’s lap, saying, “read these, you’re cr*p.)

We have B1. Much as I love TEW it’s hardly a teaching tool. Something for OSE? I’d choose Jaquay’s Dark Tower (for factions and Jaquaying the dungeon). People speak highly of The Enchanted Wood too. For me personally, White Dwarf adventures were the thing. I think I’d choose Bob McWilliams’s Sable Rose Affair as an early example of how to put together a heist.

I'm not sure I've seen any module that acts as a good teaching tool on its own. I think taking a game like OSE, and a module like the Evils of Illmire or The Dark of Hotsprings Island and encouraging a GM to run one of those modules using the rules and procedures as written in OSE could do the trick.

As much as I currently dislike D&D 5e, the original starter set was actually a decent sandbox style mini-campaign, although the advice on how to run it in the starter set was only "ok".

I think 1e Apocalypse World - if one either enjoys the authorial voice used, or can get past it, has really good GMing advice baked into the rules. This advice generally drives to the same place as outlined above using OSE to run a great sandbox module, but from a different angle/perspective.

Beyond the suggestions above, I'm drawing a blank on what to include in an "emergency intervention kit".
 

Instantnoodl

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I think my issue with modern adventures (or many of them, anyway) is the sequencing that is assumed. They follow the adventure path method… first this which leads to that, and then the next thing, and so on.

IMO that encapsulates the problem really well and using such stuff as a beginner will trap you in the railroad for a long time. These adventures aren't a good start for a "sandbox" game where the players can truly do what they want, at least not when you are new DM. And they come with a big baggage in form of a huge world that they are based in, which can also increase the difficulty. Imagine some WotC adventure in the Forgotten Realms. A new DM won't just place it in a new setting so it will probably be set in the Forgotten Realms like written. We can't expect a new DM to give the players good answers outside the railroad if:
  1. The adventure is (as quoted) more a assumed sequence of events and tries to account for a lot of player choices => They never get real outside-the-railbox advice
  2. There is a complex world (Example: Forgotten Realms) outside which the DM might need a lot of info about => New DMs might be scared to break the consistency of the given world, especially if the world is already known and "well developed". Players that know a lot about the world can make it even harder if the beginner DM says something that is wrong lore-wise and they try to correct them.
  3. People expect these epic meta-plots => Player expectations can further scare new DMs.
So I can totally see why people try to stick to the railroad and say "but that's how it's written in the book". I was there myself.

But also it’s kind of missing the thing that we learn when getting into “being a good GM” which is to start small.

Start small is such a important advice! Official material should be more focused on giving good non-railroad DM advice how to build up simple worlds and provide smaller adventures / supplements that can neatly fit in these small homebrewed worlds without assuming a lot about the surrounding world. Many people say "start by running through pre-written adventures" and I thought that too in the past but I partly disagree now.

Just keep it stupidly basic. Create a world with some really basic sites, like a city as a adventure hub. Put some rumors into the city that might hint on some sites like Dungeons, Goblin Lairs, Bandit Camps, whatever. Only flesh out stuff when the players are interested in it and let the wishes of the players guide the world creation. Don't burn yourself out by fleshing out the world before it's even needed. 90% of the stuff might not even be relevant if the players have different goals. Official material should help fill in these sites and be generic enough to open a lot of new directions from there + give the players lots of advice how one could place such a site and what further sandbox options can arise from there.

As much as I currently dislike D&D 5e, the original starter set was actually a decent sandbox style mini-campaign, although the advice on how to run it in the starter set was only "ok".

Yep. I also felt that was a step in the right direction!
 

Sable Wyvern

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I've always struggled with non-sandboxy modules. I used quite a number of MERP modules and region guides back in the day, but they mostly each just described a region I could set my players loose in.

I tried a handful of more "questy" modules over the years, and they almost always fell flat, so I tended to just stick to my own material.

In recent years, I've been more inclined to make use of pre-written materials, but I still tend towards the more sandboxy stuff -- Pirates of Drinax for Traveller, megadungeons that can be dropped into my own world and investigated or not a the players see fit.

The Enemy Within is my first serious purchase that moves away from this paradigm, but I've also got at least a copule of years and plenty of free online resources to use in identifying possible pitfalls and making the campaign my own.
 

Bourbonjack

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I think my issue with modern adventures (or many of them, anyway) is the sequencing that is assumed. They follow the adventure path method… first this which leads to that, and then the next thing, and so on.

Such a method assumes so much about what will happen that it becomes hard not to railroad. It’s not necessarily always the case, but it seems much more likely.

After the situation with Tomb of Annihilation I mentioned above, i’ve changed the way I look at any prewritten adventure material. Some stuff works well.

There are scenarios for Spire called “campaign frames” which give you a situation and the players involved and that’s it. Very little along the lines of “…and once the PCs do this, then that happens”.

I’ve found the same to be true of some of the Mothership modules. A Pound of Flesh is a kind of sandbox on a space station, with different factions and situations you can use however you like. Gradient Descent is a megadungeon that the players can interact with in a number of ways.

I’m always on the lookout for that A-B-C-D type sequencing of events. If a module avoids that, then it may be worthwhile.
Agree. A -> B -> C ->... seems to ge how a lot of “adventure paths” are constructed. With a good framework, major adventure points can fall into place fairly effortlessly.

I have problems with adventures tgst are set up more like A -> B.1 -> B.2 -> B.3 -> B.4 -> C.1 etc.
 

Baulderstone

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Ironic, as my group kind of is thriving on episodic stuff. I’ve started using various tv shows a guides. Episodic things, overarching plot that becomes apparent
One advantage to episodic play is that players get some kind of closure on a regular basis. To players an "epic" campaign can feel like those streaming show where the central conflict has been set up in the first episode, but the final battle is 11 episodes away.
 

Baulderstone

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On the topic of adventures with a scene-by-scene structure, while they can be easier for a new GM to run, they are hard for a GM to write. You are essentially putting an exciting screenplay together. It's a lot easier to just come up with an antagonist with a scheme, write up all the NPCs involved in the situation, and work out the locations involved. Trying to weave all those elements into a tight, scene-based adventure is a lot more work, and if the players go off-track, it is wasted work.
 

Fenris-77

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On the topic of adventures with a scene-by-scene structure, while they can be easier for a new GM to run, they are hard for a GM to write. You are essentially putting an exciting screenplay together. It's a lot easier to just come up with an antagonist with a scheme, write up all the NPCs involved in the situation, and work out the locations involved. Trying to weave all those elements into a tight, scene-based adventure is a lot more work, and if the players go off-track, it is wasted work.
I think you need to hold on to your prep lightly. For example, sets of NPCs and location can be used in more than one way if they are written properly. I always have lists of NPCs and notes about locations, but I very rarely twine them together during prep into something you might call a pre-written scene. This isn't illusionism, I just leave enough blanks and details empty that I can make them fit into a scene at need. Random tables help too. I will freely admit that this also isn't the easiest way to run a game without experience.
 

Raleel

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One advantage to episodic play is that players get some kind of closure on a regular basis. To players an "epic" campaign can feel like those streaming show where the central conflict has been set up in the first episode, but the final battle is 11 episodes away.
And you have to run right episodes every time. There can be no weak episode. That’s very hard to do, and missed the leverage of your best asset - the players.
 

Fenris-77

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And you have to run right episodes every time. There can be no weak episode. That’s very hard to do, and missed the leverage of your best asset - the players.
This is easier in some games than others. Something like Monster of the Week that is specifically designed to foster episodic play does it without a lot of fuss. Imposing the episodic on a game that doesn't naturally support it is a lot more work.
 
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