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Monday, May 8, 2017

You're DM'ing Wrong

First, They're Called Modules for a Reason.
So the moral of the story is this: Modules are better than adventures.  They force the players to play like grown ups.  They force the players to make decisions and direct the play.  The give the DM infinite amounts of flexibility.  Go ahead and try dropping your average Dungeon adventure or Pathfinder movie-script – er, I mean ‘adventure’, yeah right – into an ongoing campaign without doing more work than you would have if you just wrote your own damn adventure.
For our purposes, a module is something like Keep on the Borderlands, or it's spiritual successor, The Sinister Stone of Sakkara. There may be an end-goal or ultimate "big bad" of sorts for the module, but there's enough in the surrounding terrain,and various seeds, that by the time the characters get powerful enough, the module is itself just a seed, or a beginning. The DM can drop in more, entice them off the edges of the map, find a new threat, a new dungeon, or even drop the whole thing into an already existing campaign.[*]

Other modules aren't even "starter" modules, but can simply be dropped into an existing map (like Sakkara) or whatever world you create.

Pathfinder adventures, especially those intended for society play, are stories, not open ended sandboxes with opportunities for the players to make, or get into, trouble. I'm not the only GM I know who's remarked on the number of pages spent on detail and character descriptions that will almost never impact play - as if the writers want to consider themselves "authors" - the utterly "on rails" set of encounters that are dependent at times on particular (and not always common) skills, in an overall narrative arc.

So we stumble across this in Google plus - Rick Stump on how he started a campaign. Jeffro reacted in the predictable way:
How I Started a 2e Campaign
-Made sure I had the AD&D 2e books, including all skills and powers
-Sketched out all the available classes, including making 4 custom builds with the Skills and Powers rules
-Sketched out a world map
-Wrote a precis of history from the Late Paleolithic through current day
[Yes. Really]
-Dove down and made a regional map about the size of the eastern seaboard of North America
-Sketched out the 5 largest cities, made a series of political grouping, and wrote up over 120 NPCs, the most prominent of them including family trees back 5 generations
-Sketched out the capitol cities of the largest nations outside the main game area, about 40 NPCs each
-Wrote the arc for 4 major campaign-long stories adding NPCs and magic items for them, too
-Wrote up a full evil humanoid nation and 8 associated tribes, including lairs and loot
-Conlanged 20-90 words and basic syntax for 3 in-universe languages
-Filled in major trade routes and trade seasons
-Made the first 6 or so adventures to get a new party to 2nd+ level
All before anyone rolled a character!
Apparently I'm not the only one who has spent faaaaar to much time creating a game world. Sadly, in real world terms, both the Paizo Pathfinder adventures, and excessive world building all stumble over one minor obstacle.

The players.

If you're wondering what happens when a GM takes his world and adventure building too seriously, the following image is spot on:

This, in the hands of a GM who isn't willing to learn, or who is too full of himself to figure out it's at least as much the players world, may result in the GM listening to Wendell's evil twin.

I had some players in High School, and we were running a Traveller campaign. They didn't have a ship. Sucked to be them. Well, they were approached about infiltrating a local crew of shady "fast merchants" that sometimes dabbled in piracy that needed a few extra hands. I'd based it off of the standard patrol cruiser in the Traveller book, had deck plans standing by, including normal watch rotation schedules, and waited to see how they'd take over the ship in a clever and epic firefight.

Yeah, about that.

One spectacularly lucky computer skills roll while overriding the security protocols (after lobotomizing the other watchstander on the bridge) and suddenly the entire ship was evacuated to vacuum, with only the players in vacc suits.

I suddenly had to figure out what came next.

Since they were such a sloppy and ill-disciplined pirate crew the ship of course needed major repairs, and of course the local authorities wanted to contest the salvage....

Nevertheless, it was an early lesson that the best laid plans of GM's aft gang agley. That having a loose idea of how the world worked was great, but the players weren't going to start out "epic." - you could work up to that.

In this context, the several page Auran Empire primer for ACKs is spot on. A very, very rough map, a few notes on gods, a few paragraphs of history, and that's it. Enough to give you a framework, but loose enough to wedge almost anything in.

* Added a minor update for a missing thought.


  1. One of my GM's once@had a secret conspiracy kidnap one of us to preserve their secret (some wandering bard had heard a few stories and started singing songs that made her sound like Doc Savage with magic).

    Obviously, we were going to pick up rumors about what happened, get organized, follow an intricate trail of clues, and track the villains to their lair.

    Actually, the first one to get a hint wrote the hint in LARGE LETTERS and posted it on the tavern bulletin board. The others followed suit as they picked up bits and pieces. Including the one who wrote "THEY'RE IN (next town over). SEE YOU THERE."

    By the time we all got there, the "secret conspiracy" was common gossip in every tavern for fifty miles in every direction. The conspirators gave it up as a bad job, released our friend so we'd stop hunting them (and posting progress reports in every bar), and went deep undercover. We found her and had a party.

    For some reason the GM was a little miffed.

    1. Heh. Sounds like good times.

      I tell my players for ACKs "I won't try to kill you. I won't avoid it either. All I can promise is that if your character dies, I will do my best to make it epically awesome, or epically dumb. "

    2. Outstanding! I'd take that group of players as a GM!