Here’s something I’ve been dealing with lately that keeps jumping to the front of my mind. How can I deal with a published adventure that has significant problems with it but has a single diamond in the rough that will drive some great sessions?
My go to examples for this are either Onslaught at Arda I or Dead in the Water, both from Fantasy Flight Games for the Star Wars RPG.
Both adventures have some great ideas in them, but with both of them there’s almost enough work required to make them playable that you could just take the ideas behind them, flesh them out from a seed or two at your own table, and not be down much time or effort. I’m a completionist and bought both of these sight unseen, which is a fairly common problem up here where we need snow speeders because the tauntauns are too cold. So now what do I do with these books.
One thing I can do with these is figure out why I don’t think they work and decide how I can avoid similar problems with my own adventures.
I go through an adventure very ruthlessly as I prep looking for the good bits. Using Dead in the Water as an example, I will only use Act 2 as it stands out to me. Act 1 and 3 I find redundant and needlessly time wasting, an extra plot on top of a fairly solid adventure. The basic premise of Act 2 is “Droids have a special chip go active, somehow find blaster rifles, and take over the ship”. This is a great in media res start. Have an NPC captain of the ship give a somewhat throw away briefing and then have the droids take over in the opening narration.
This is enough for a simple adventure. The issue I run into with Dead in the Water as published is bloat; the seeming need to have the players know exactly where the droids came from. Having Act 3 be entirely dependent on the players salvaging the chip from a droid in the midst of a fight presents major pacing issues as well as thudding the players over the head with a PLOT hammer.
An act, and what would probably be most of a game session, shouldn’t be spent on giving the players background. This is a trick I’m learning from Pulp TV and comics.is You want to start the players off as close to the action as possible. When setting off with a new group I’ll do the equivalent of a “did you remember to go to the bathroom” scene and then we’re off into something. The only issue I’ve had with that is a couple of the players escaping through the metaphorical bathroom window and stealing the neighbors’ car thinking I had hidden explosives in their own. This happened when I had supplied a chauffeur and everything.
When you have a hook as good as “and then the droids takeover,” especially combined with a ship that has had its engines disabled and is slipping closer and closer to a black hole, the fact that the players loaded the droids onto the ship seems to be setting out a bouquet of gilded lilies.
How the droids came to be on board should be something that comes out after saving the ship as opposed to a plot requirement that has a chance of failure from a narrative standpoint. Why would you put the cool act of what’s going on in jeopardy, Alex? Having the players survive and then having a stake in finding out what went wrong and how this disaster happened can be very interesting. It can be teased out in a second act or left up to the GM to take it from there.
Okay, I’ve been ranting about this, but how can I take this and use it in my adventures and at my table?
A simple way is to start players off in the middle of action. The players should be starting on the quest that their characters need to complete whether they know it or not. Having bad things happen if the players don’t do an action is quite acceptable, but having the main thrust of the plot not happen is unacceptable.
When I have a self-made adventure on the table I rarely think further than the end of the day and where I want them to end up in any concrete form. The players are able to go deep into how and what they want to deal with and I adapt to that. Seeing traps in setup that can scuttle an entire plot by the players inadvertently is a big hole to avoid. I don’t really care about making failure interesting, but if I have a cool thing I want the players to do I put that thing in front of the players.
In the end it comes back to being fair to your players. They don’t hear your mind as it thinks of things and there isn’t a large chance they’ll figure out the cool twist if you don’t tell them about it. No player should have to go through any meandering search to get to the fun. Everyone at the table should be there for fun and being bored for the first session of a short campaign is decidedly unfun.