DMs Concerns vs Actual Players' Perceptions/Experiences

MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
I've spent far too many hours over the years reading threads in ENWorld dissecting adventures, debating the ideal adventure design and layout, and complaints and advice regarding how to run an engaging adventure, often with calls for more tools and support for DMs in published adventures. I would also lump into this discussion, conversations comparing "old-school", low-fluff, "practical" adventure content versus "overly" verbose, hard-to-digest, hard-to-navigate modern adventure books that seem designed more for "lonely fun" than actually running the adventure.

A lot of this is couched in terms of player expectations, enjoyment, and engagement.

But in my experience, how well an adventure is designed doesn't have as much impact on the players as many of us GMs thinks it does.

I've run terribly obtuse, difficult to digest and prep adventures. I've also run much lighter adventures that lean more into the GM filling in the blanks and improving things on the fly. Neither seemed to make much difference to the players. As a DM, I have enough experience that I can run a good-enough game that my players are enjoying enough to keep playing session after session. And I'm coming to the conclusion that, other than some outliers, the quality of a published adventure has much more to do with the GMs enjoyment than the player's enjoyment.

If I find the logic of an adventure and its antagonists "stupid", or a story being too linear, to too open and directionless, these are things that mainly affect me. One, I may not enjoy the fiction--the plot, NPCs, etc. Reading through an engaging and well-written adventure is certainly part of the enjoyment of running a published adventure. But poor plots don't have the same impact on the players even if I don't "fix" things. Just buy playing and making choices they are making it their own. So the experience is much more forgiving in play. An adventure has to be especially bad, I find, before the players notice or at least care enough to become unengaged.

Two, the poor layout, organization, and lack of tools to help a GM run the game with minimal work, which most published adventures suffer from, is almost entirely something that affects GM enjoyment--at least for experienced GMs. Obviously, if terrible organization and poor prep leads to lots of page flipping and pauses, that will negatively affect the player experience. But, in my experience at least, I put in the prep I need to run the game relatively smoothly. That could mean putting in the time to read and reread bloated adventures and creating notes, look ups, and tools to help me run in. Or, it could mean putting in the time to creat content to fill gaps, fix poorly connected plot threads, etc. in a bare-bones adventure.

I know I'm meandering in this thread, but I'm interested in knowing your thoughts one how important adventure quality is to players in the hands of a conscientious GM. Are GMs enabling sub-par adventure design because we'll run a published adventure that players are excited about and do the work necessary to make it work? Am I expecting too much from adventure designers and writers? Do you have good example of adventures that are compelling, fun to read over and prep, and are also easy to run? Or is their just too much variety in GM expectations and preferences to expect "better" adventure design?
 

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Or is their just too much variety in GM expectations and preferences to expect "better" adventure design?
Not to trivialize the rest of your points, but that's what makes it hard to engage with them. "Better" adventure design is largely subjective, and even theoretically universal things like "make the adventure easier to run at the table" don't mean the same thing to everyone. There are many approaches to accomplishing that, and different GMs are going to find some of them worse than useless. Even something as seemingly innocuous as a good index may be seen as pointless if the adventure's too short to merit dedicating space to one, or if the module uses clever graphic design and layout to make an index less useful than getting a few pages of extra content. And what "clever graphic design and layout" means is equally subjective - for ex, there are loads of folks who swear by the style Mork Borg pioneered, but it doesn't work for me at all.

The only thing that's probably universally true is that financially successful adventure design needs to cater to GMs as much as possible. They're the ones buying most of this stuff, not the players. The trick is finding approaches that appeal to the most GMs possible - and good luck with that, when one GMs perfect adventure is another one's trash. Small wonder you're hitting so many duds, even before allowing for Sturgeon's Law effects.
 

Thomas Shey

Legend
Honestly, in my experience the biggest issue where GM perspective and player perspective is usually off involves difficulty/hazard. What GM's think is "interesting" can often conflict with what players are comfortable with.
 

For my own taste, I prefer that DM keep things basic and simple.
Complex plot, twisted agenda, numerous npcs, that are all good for a movie or books.
In a game experience, crucial elements can be separated by months real life.
For the DM it is a crucial Npc for the players it is a vague memory of last summer session.
So if the DM have to refer to his notes, don’t even think that the players have any idea of what he is talking about.
 

Reynard

Legend
Supporter
In my experience and based on my preferences, what makes an adventure "bad" is that it is hard for me to use in play. Since I am largely an improv GM, that means not providing or (worse and more common) obfuscation of motives etc that let me run the NPCs/villains. I don't care how linear it is if I have the tools I need to improv the thing.
 

MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
For my own taste, I prefer that DM keep things basic and simple.
Complex plot, twisted agenda, numerous npcs, that are all good for a movie or books.
In a game experience, crucial elements can be separated by months real life.
For the DM it is a crucial Npc for the players it is a vague memory of last summer session.
So if the DM have to refer to his notes, don’t even think that the players have any idea of what he is talking about.
This matches my experience, but I do like more complex plots and deeper stories. I find that you really only need one player in a group who is really into it. If you have that player who likes taking notes and trying to tie things together it allows the rest to engage with it. At the same time, it is easy for a DM to fall in love with their world building and story building. The best games for me are always when the story emerges from player choice and action. You have to be able to adapt things to what the characters do. And that is harder to due if you've spun a complex web.
 

MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
In my experience and based on my preferences, what makes an adventure "bad" is that it is hard for me to use in play. Since I am largely an improv GM, that means not providing or (worse and more common) obfuscation of motives etc that let me run the NPCs/villains. I don't care how linear it is if I have the tools I need to improv the thing.
Yes. Good point. But I prefer when it is done very briefly. When I have to read pages of background, it can be hard to keep it in mind and I end up improving changes, making a lot of that background content irrelevant.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
Are GMs enabling sub-par adventure design because we'll run a published adventure that players are excited about and do the work necessary to make it work?
Absolutely, yes.
Am I expecting too much from adventure designers and writers?
No. Most modules, especially modern ones, are really badly done, overly long, and require more work from the referee to run than if they’d just made their own from scratch.
Do you have good example of adventures that are compelling, fun to read over and prep, and are also easy to run?
Dark of Hot Springs Island. The Stygian Library. Sailors on the Starless Sea. Frozen in Time. People of the Pit. Peril on the Pure Planet. Moon Slaves of the Cannibal Kingdom. Just about every other Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG module.
Or is their just too much variety in GM expectations and preferences to expect "better" adventure design?
To a point, yes. But not really, no. There’s a lot of variance, but not infinitely so. There’s a few core pillars to most D&D-like fantasy games, so presenting them in new and interesting ways shouldn’t be a problem. Labeling your module honestly with the type of adventure contained within also shouldn’t be a problem. Including notes on how to adjust things for different preferences shouldn’t take up that much space. I think Matt Colville did a whole video on labeling modules a while back.

I am very much the referee who wants the OSR-style of presentation. If I have to dig through dense paragraphs for basic info, that’s a badly presented module. Gimme bullet points and bare-bones descriptions that are useful. I don’t want lengthy, overly written, purple prose boxed text. Use page spreads. Show me a mini-map of where the encounter is taking place on the larger map. If I can’t easily use the module at the table, it’s bad presentation.
 


payn

I don't believe in the no-win scenario
This is a two part equation and always has been. I do think adventure quality matters, but GM execution is the most important aspect. The "ran it as written; and it sucks" types never take any responsibility for the experience. I often see criticism of published adventures and I ask myself, "if its so bad why would a person bother running it in the first place?" I think there are a few answers to that. One is they expect the module to do all the heavy lifting, but found out the hard way thats not the case. Another is popularity amongst gamers. If so many people like an adventure it must be good; right? No adventure can be written to instantly fit all types of play styles and interests. The two have to work in conjunction to produce a good experience.

Looking at the adventure design piece for a moment, I think the system is going to matter. Bespokes have an advantage in that they narrow play focus. The adventure can lean into the intentional and specific play loop to provide what everyone expects. The waters muddy with generic universals as they are meant to be a toolkit that provides a myriad of experiences. Folks often forget this as they badger on about how adventure design isnt good because it doesn't fit them like a glove. So, I think mindfulness of the product is in order when one considers adventure quality.

That ties directly into the question, "are GMs enabling poor design?". No, its the need to design a module that works for a community in a one size fits all aspect. You are not getting a tailored suit here, you are getting sweatpants. Super comfy for some, too informal for others. GMs may need to tailor themselves, which is something some GMs are very interested in doing. A good adventure design includes a tailor kit for these purposes.

Digging deeper into specifics I'd look closely at the development of GM and player facing material. Many of the beginning modules back in the day had a habit of intertwining GM and player facing material. What I mean about this is, text boxes to be read aloud, details on chargen, and setting background etc.. Enter the campaign players guide. I am one of the biggest proponents of players guides in adventure designs. Instead of making the GM dole out items at particular times, or untangle them from their adventure material, the players guide puts everything front and center. Its a major bummer when I as a player ask about guide details and am told, "thats fluff stuff I didnt bother reading" by a GM. I bring this up becasue I think it speaks to both adventure design quality and the idea that adventures are for GMs alone. I as a player very much dig into the details and get into the spirit of a campaign (much the chargrin of a few GMs I've had). I think having a clear line of whats intended for whom is a good adventure deisgn quality. (Also, its there, so use it GMs! If you are not interested in the material, pelase be upfront about that becasue its not on the module if you think the fluff is not important.)

Finally, "better" is highly subjective. At this point, ill stop making excuses for why adventure writers get an automatic "C". Often, the adventure writer is not a rules guy. Early edition cycles have the shakiest quality as the writers find their footing. This is the part for game designers to be mindful of what they are producing. Mechanics are there and should work accordingly. If plots are constantly convoluted or easily bypassed, then its time to consider what the system toolkit provides. Having good organization for table use and reading is important for any written product. These things should be expected and demanded from customers. However, no product is going to instantly, easily, and provide to complete satisfaction fun. The execution is on you the GM, the details are on them the writers.
 

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