DMs Concerns vs Actual Players' Perceptions/Experiences

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Supporter
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.

Yep.

The swimming duck analogy applies - most of the adventure design issues are under the waterline, where the GM/duck is doing a lot of paddling, but the players are above the waterline, and don't see the issues.

And, much as some don't want to admit this - most of us GMs are pretty competent, such that we can do whatever paddling, and the players have a good time.

So, the better approach isn't about player experience directly. It is about how much work the GM has to go through to generate a particular desired player experience. And saying, "good experience" isn't enough. A given adventure design may make it easy to produce one kind of experience, but hard to produce another. Given multiple valid playstyles, what the target is matters in evaluating the content.
 

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Celebrim

Legend
Things I like:

Module as a whole:

a) Lengthy "What has happened so far" description set out as a narrative explaining how we got to this point and what the major fronts that the PCs will be engaged with want and are doing absent PC intervention.

b) A good "hook" section that sets the stage for the PCs entering into the story.

c) Physical representations of any clues or documents that the PCs are likely to recover so that they can study them at leisure and add them to their notes.

d) Good imaginative maps of the major locations.

e) Highly Mobile NPCs or factions who might proactively move about should have their own detailed entries. This can require a list of "front" descriptions after the introduction but before the description of individual encounters. If for example the town guard might take an interest, "Town Guard" gets a front description along with a few named NPCs and some generic stat blocks to generate encounters from.

f) If there is a plot or expected flow of events, discussion of what happens if things don't go as expected. Adventures that just assume the PC's behavior, or worse assume the PC's will do something that is actually probably irrational are bad adventures. Adventures that have hard rails in place to get the PC's back on track rather than assuming a series of events that give the PCs a rational choice to get back on track are also bad adventures. Don't have things like, "The players will soon realize that they are vastly overmatched and run away, and then..." No, deal with the fact that players rarely act that way.

g) There should be a twist. At some point in the adventure, the players perception of events and what the adventure is should change. There are dozens of possible twists, some hard and some soft, but the twist should be there.

Individual encounters, whether events or location based:

a) Stat blocks in the description, not in an appendix. I hate flipping back and forth.
b) Things that are immediately obvious to the PCs set out first in a nice short readable block preferably set apart from the rest of the text. I find that if I have to improvise a description all too often I forget some important detail. I can always adapt the text if I don't want to just read it, but it should make good reading if I just want to read it.
c) Immediate things that are likely to happen set right after the intro block.
d) Points of interest based on things the PCs might explore set out as a list afterwards.

Depending on how complex the adventure is, it may need other support, but that's generally what I like.
 

MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
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.)
Thank you for your well-thought out post. Regarding, campaign player guides, I am also a fan of them. Frog God Games does this for a lot of their large adventures. Their adventures vary greatly in quality and I would NOT hold out most FGG adventures, especially the monster 500+ adventure books as well organized and easy to run. But I do appreciate their player guides. I do find that some player are never going to take the time to read most of that stuff. Some players just want to show up and play. And that's fine. In those cases, where something comes up, where a bit of a lore dump is needed, I can just refer them to the appropriate page in the players guide and parcel thing out that way.
 

MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
Things I like:

Module as a whole:

a) Lengthy "What has happened so far" description set out as a narrative explaining how we got to this point and what the major fronts that the PCs will be engaged with want and are doing absent PC intervention.

b) A good "hook" section that sets the stage for the PCs entering into the story.

c) Physical representations of any clues or documents that the PCs are likely to recover so that they can study them at leisure and add them to their notes.

d) Good imaginative maps of the major locations.

e) Highly Mobile NPCs or factions who might proactively move about should have their own detailed entries. This can require a list of "front" descriptions after the introduction but before the description of individual encounters. If for example the town guard might take an interest, "Town Guard" gets a front description along with a few named NPCs and some generic stat blocks to generate encounters from.

f) If there is a plot or expected flow of events, discussion of what happens if things don't go as expected. Adventures that just assume the PC's behavior, or worse assume the PC's will do something that is actually probably irrational are bad adventures. Adventures that have hard rails in place to get the PC's back on track rather than assuming a series of events that give the PCs a rational choice to get back on track are also bad adventures. Don't have things like, "The players will soon realize that they are vastly overmatched and run away, and then..." No, deal with the fact that players rarely act that way.

g) There should be a twist. At some point in the adventure, the players perception of events and what the adventure is should change. There are dozens of possible twists, some hard and some soft, but the twist should be there.

Individual encounters, whether events or location based:

a) Stat blocks in the description, not in an appendix. I hate flipping back and forth.
b) Things that are immediately obvious to the PCs set out first in a nice short readable block preferably set apart from the rest of the text. I find that if I have to improvise a description all too often I forget some important detail. I can always adapt the text if I don't want to just read it, but it should make good reading if I just want to read it.
c) Immediate things that are likely to happen set right after the intro block.
d) Points of interest based on things the PCs might explore set out as a list afterwards.

Depending on how complex the adventure is, it may need other support, but that's generally what I like.


Thanks. These are all good points. One thing that I would add is it would be nice to have some suggestions for tactics when describing different encounters. Frog God Games does this in some of their adventures and I found it helpful.

Advice for tweaking the challenge level. Adventurer's League adventures do this and it, again, is helpful.
 

zakael19

Adventurer
Absolutely, yes.

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.

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.

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.

I maintain that Necrotic Gnome's "Winter's Daughter" is the exemplar of how good a pre-written adventure can be. It's focused, evocative, has just enough lore there for you to digest and add as rumors to the world or gently re-work to fit something ongoing. Each scene and NPC has perfect succinct tags that you can look at and improv off, deeply actionable at the table. Every dungeon room is interesting and creative, adding flavor and delight or dread. It has notes for combat actions, cool thematic items, and gorgeous art.

All in the bare minimum of space with excellent presentation quality.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
I maintain that Necrotic Gnome's "Winter's Daughter" is the exemplar of how good a pre-written adventure can be. It's focused, evocative, has just enough lore there for you to digest and add as rumors to the world or gently re-work to fit something ongoing. Each scene and NPC has perfect succinct tags that you can look at and improv off, deeply actionable at the table. Every dungeon room is interesting and creative, adding flavor and delight or dread. It has notes for combat actions, cool thematic items, and gorgeous art.

All in the bare minimum of space with excellent presentation quality.
Yeah. Old-School Essentials has some great modules. The vampire mansion one, I can’t recall the name. Dolmenwood. Come on. Not even released yet and destined to be a classic. Ben Milton’s Waking of Willowby Hall. Lots of fantastic stuff in the OSR.
 

MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
I maintain that Necrotic Gnome's "Winter's Daughter" is the exemplar of how good a pre-written adventure can be. It's focused, evocative, has just enough lore there for you to digest and add as rumors to the world or gently re-work to fit something ongoing. Each scene and NPC has perfect succinct tags that you can look at and improv off, deeply actionable at the table. Every dungeon room is interesting and creative, adding flavor and delight or dread. It has notes for combat actions, cool thematic items, and gorgeous art.

All in the bare minimum of space with excellent presentation quality.
They also have it for Foundry. I bought it to check it out.
 

aramis erak

Legend
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.
In my hands, it does make a big difference when I'm in a situation where I have to run it as written...
... Such as running it for D&D AL. That stress, plus no more free modules, is why I quit running D&D AL games.

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?
Are we enabling poor design? Yes.
Are you expecting too much? Maybe, but I don't have enough a read of you to jduge.
Fun to read and prep? most of D&DAL season 1 and 2 secondary adventures (not the big books). Tho' a few weren't.
I find the 1 page adventures for Star Trek Adventures a great read and easily prepped - the "Mission Briefs" line of modules. There's enough to run with... but not enough to really get in the way.
The Great Pendragon Campaign is littered with decent short adventures... but the book itself is a lot of storyline for one to fill in, and the adventures within are not enough. But man, lots of ideas.
 

TheSword

Legend
I think there are many things that make a good product.

  • Artwork
  • Map design
  • Map Aesthetics
  • Interesting evocative NPcs
  • Interesting evocative locations
  • Interesting evocative foes
  • Interesting evocative hazards
  • Interesting evocative events
  • Interesting evocative rewards
  • interesting evocative political tensions/dynamics
  • Interesting tactical combats

And many more more. All these things benefit players and can make or break a product. These are also the most important elements of a published campaign adventure for me as a DM. The order in which these are written, or the format matters a little bit but not as much as people make it out and not as much as the actual content inside. That’s what I’m paying for, that’s the bit I can’t do/don’t have time to do myself.

The main reason being, I don’t think players notice or even care about most of the flaws in so called terribly written modules. Hydra in a cave and couldn’t fit in the entrance … players don’t even notice… because there is a freaking hydra in front of them. Players are ingenious at coming up with their own interpretations.

They also don’t notice or care if a DM makes a mistake or gets something wrong. Or if a rare continuity error is made, they don’t sweat it about it and it’s easily handwaved or written off.

That’s why DMs should always take a turn on the other side of screen for every system they use to get some perspective back as a player. Even when they personally dislike hydras not having a clear food source - they need to look around the table and see if anyone else cares.

The dozen or so elements above contribute to poor design or not. Yet it seems popular to find little nit-picks and editorial choices and claim that makes poor design. I guess it’s easier to do that than comment on the substance.
 
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