Please Just Play the Adventure (One Shots)


Alternative Title of Thread: Just Engage with the %$#@ing Adventure

For free RPG day I ran a one shot at my friendly local game store, and, well, I didn't have as much fun as I'd hoped. I haven't played with a group of strangers since, well, it's been at least 5 years and I was a player not the GM. But come to think of it, I kind of had the same WTF reaction to the actions of the players back then like I did this time. So maybe I'm the problem?

It doesn't matter what game I was running yesterday, but the premise was that the characters were traveling through the desert when they come across a dead horse and the rider lying in the shade of a cactus some twenty yards away. Even without speaking to the rider, they can tell that he's a wealthy young man by his clothing, and they can also see by the condition of his horse that it was ridden to death. One of the PCs rightly figures out that this dude is running from someone or something and I'm thinking, "Yeah, we're off to a good start here." I describe the rider as being in a bad way, obviously suffering from heat stroke, he asks for water, and they help him out. The rider suggests they post a lookout and goes back to sleep. This is where the trouble starts.

The PCs start figuring out what they want to do. Which is great, because I normally love to see players engaged by having them discuss in character what they should do next. I cleared up some things for them, the rider isn't lazy for snoozing he's actually suffering from dehyrdation and heat exhaustion and genuinely needs some rest. During the course of conservation, we got your typically bad PC ideas and a few good PC ides, but the most popular choice was to leave the rider some water and just continue on with their journey. Which leaves me rather flummoxed thinking to myself, "This is the adventure, guys. If you refuse to nibble on the hook, that's it. You're getting 3 hours and 45 minutes of your time back." And I feel the need to stress that just leaving the rider was something they were seriously contemplating.

After much debating, they decide to wake the rider and go ahead and travel with him. So, yay! They notice they're being followed by about a dozen riders, and the rider, Billy, explains to them that this group is after him and intend to bring him back to his family. But he doesn't want to go. Since the PCs can't outrun these hunters, they decide to hole up in a nearby abandoned mining town. Things get a little weird from there. They find some miner's clothes and ask Billy to change in order to disguise himself. Billy balks, explaining that these hunters no doubt have an excellent description of him, this outfit won't hide him, and besides, it doesn't suit his style. One of the PCs decides its a good idea to pull a weapon on Billy and threaten him which doesn't work. But another PC persuades him to change which he does even if he thinks it won't work to disguise him.

Long story short, the PCs defeat the hunters. During the course of the fight, when things looked to be going south for the PCs, one of the players decided his character was going to sneak away during the fight, steal the other PCs horses, and leave. Which I really thought was an unnecessary, crummy thing to do. But, whatever, by the time his plan was coming to fruition the tide had turned and PC victory was fairly certain.

So the whole experience kind of left a bad taste in my mouth. What bothered me most was a bunch of people signed up to play a game and when we got started didn't seem interested in engaging with the adventure. That's just super frustrating. It's a one shot, guys, just go with the flow. I don't mind if you surprise me, but surprise me by how you engage with the adventure rather than running away from it. Then there's the odd behavior. Why would you point a weapon at the guy you're ostensibly trying to save?

Maybe I'm just not cut out to play games with strangers any more.

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my secret fighting dictionary is unbeatable
I experienced a similar thing early in my limited convention-going. I was in a World War 2 horror game with soldier characters, playing the only non-soldier (there was also a German prisoner). Folks picked their characters, and a couple people at the table groaned when a certain player picked the ranking officer. Later, we were investigating a mysterious house behind enemy lines with a village nearby, and all clues pointed to us needing to go to the village. But this player of the officer decided to hunker down in the house and wait for help, and somebody else who'd been in the military actually backed him up because "that's what you would do".

This standoff lasted nearly an hour, and the GM finally said, look, I had to prepare a game, and the game is in the village, so would you please just go there? Nope, they dug in their heels. The rest of us were so frustrated. The GM had to cheese something involving the town being behind German lines so they didn't recognize the authority of the commanding officer, I don't remember how exactly it got us going again, but the GM had to cut out a whole middle scene for time constraints due to the delay and then the ending didn't make as much sense as it might have.

I learned from this to always run with the premise, especially at con games/one-shots, and also to be very wary of con games 'cause you don't know who you'll be playing with. If I get the chance, I try to pick a character who's going to have some amount of sway, and I try to set an obvious example of engaging with the premise. It only takes one player to derail a scenario—and you had a whole group doing that!

To consider your specific problem, did you give the players an overt incentive to help the guy, other than charity? Did he offer them a reward, or something like that? Even that isn't necessarily a motivator of course because it's a one-shot. This might be why earlier convention games were scored and run as competitions!

The player who was gonna ditch and steal the horses, though, that's just flat uncool. I hope the other players dealt with them appropriately.


The problem are not the players, or the GM.

The problem is the adventure format.

It's said that 90% of everything is crap, but for published adventures it's more like 99%. And most GMs seem to base their idea of how to plan an adventure on published adventures. And as the programmers like to say "garbage in = garbage out".

RPGs are a medium in which the players are given the ability to make choices about what their characters think and do, and those choices have consequences that determine the story that is playing out. Published adventures don't understand that and instead write a whole story in which all the choices have already been made for the players. Without telling the players about it. Players might make the wrong choices, and so adventure writers come up with all kinds of ways to make sure no ideas of the players can work, except the one that they are supposed to take. That's railroading!

Those players sound great. They seem to play an RPG like an RPG is supposed to be played. They make judgements about how things look to them, and then make decision based on their interpretation of the information available to them. Published adventures don't want them to do that. They are written to make players guess what the writer wants them to do. And if the players actually play the game instead of just playing along with the script, the adventure breaks. Because it's garbage.

Any decent adventure worth playing provides situations that players can interact with in ways that they think best, based on their understanding of what is going on. Such adventures can exist, but they are almost unheard of in the publishing world. It's a struggle that the entire industry has been fighting with for almost 40 years but never appears to have realized what the cause of the problem is.
Don't write scripts that the players are supposed to act out while not having any idea what the script is.


my secret fighting dictionary is unbeatable
I'm not a fan of scripted/raiload scenarios, but if I know I'm in one (especially in a con/one-shot game), I'm going to stay on the designated path. To do otherwise is either asking for, or deliberately engineering, a train wreck.

The key there, of course, is "if I know I'm in one". While there are clear signs for the player who's experienced in both styles of play, the GM is much better off deliberately communicating it to the players, explicitly and before beginning if necessary. Even in the days when it might be assumed that an adventure was scripted, this sort of thing wrecked many a group's play experience, because many published systems promised something else.


But how do you know the designated path? Look to the GM to give you signs if you are playing correct or doing something wrong?


In my experience (as both a player and a DM, and only playing with established groups of friends), the issue arises when one or more of the players try to outsmart the DM and "beat" the game. I've been guilty of it myself, particularly when I get carried with my own perceived cleverness, and I know it annoys whoever is the DM.


He'll flip ya...Flip ya for real...
Maybe I'm just not cut out to play games with strangers any more.
You shouldn't expect the best from strangers. I remember my organized play days in PFS. It was always a crapshoot. That's kind of the price of admission. You will encounter playstyles that are different than your own that you will not like. Sometimes, you get a rare surprise and game with somebody who has a different style, but its a positive experience. Pick up groups, organized play, or con stuff should always be tempered with the chance of bad players both in and out of game.

That said, the hook relying on the PCs helping a stranger has its pitfalls obviously. Any other context? Are they just riding through the desert for no particular reason? Typically, for this kind of thing to work the PCs are either some type of law enforcement or are actively looking for the guy.

This is very common. You see it all the time with "stranger" games. A lot of players don't "get" how to play the game from the meta side and a lot of players think an RPG is "just do dumb random stuff with an audience".

It's bad enough the players that don't "get it", as they likely never will. You can try to explain to them, "just follow the hook", but they will be clueless.

Worse are the freedom players that are trying to prove some Jargon or another that they "have" something in the game or whatever.

They you just get to the players that are disruptive because that is what they like doing.

It is easy enough to Player Proof a one shot pick up game. First off trap the Characters on a Big Old Railroad. So the hook is a bit more of a harpoon. Don't have a hook flop around and wait for the players....have the harpoon strike right through them. In general, don't waste time with getting the players to take a job or help an NPC......just go right to force. And greed always works too....offer the player an artifact of their, know to catch a 1st level goblin bandit. Not like it matters as it's a one shot.

Then just make sure you tweak other things. Like the rich guy is.....wait for it....a ghost(or dragon, or demon). Yup, he looks normal enough, but he is Casper's best pal. That way no low level characters can hurt him.

Then you can have a normal game, no matter what the players do.


my secret fighting dictionary is unbeatable
But how do you know the designated path? Look to the GM to give you signs if you are playing correct or doing something wrong?
That's pretty much what you have to do, even though it has its (well documented!) problems. I look for the in-game signs of where the path is, and if they aren't clear, I take tentative actions or ask questions—in character if possible, and out of charcter if necessary. Some players really hate having to break character, but if it's a choice between that or the game falling apart, I'll do it!


I play with a LOT of strangers, and I have no problem just outright telling them, "This is the game folks, interact with it or go home." and "Rule One: Play nice with others. Stealing their stuff and/or pointing weapons at them doesn't fulfill that number one rule. Shape up."

That said, I agree with @Yora 100% that it would be a much easier (and more fun) thing to do if all adventures were written with the idea that the characters are not leads in a fantasy novel and should be able to make meaningful choices, including leaving the guy to die (without derailing the adventure).

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