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Home or Away: Pondering the Prudence of Published Adventures

June 9, 2014

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I debate the owners of our FLGS, The Wyvern’s Tale, as to what is valuable in gaming as a player all the time.  I believe that gaming is best experienced when it comes in the context of a shared experience with as large of a group of people as possible.  That doesn’t mean that you have a table with 15 players, but I appreciate published material, and completing published material.  Declan, the Shop owner, has the opposite opinion: that material generated by the GM has the capability of addressing the players more individually and is therefore more enjoyable and valuable to the player and GM.

You probably have an immediate feeling about this debate and where you stand on the issue.  Let me justify my point of view, and I’ll play devil’s advocate and take Declan’s side too.

The Published Scenario (or Modules, as us Grognards would call them): The Shared Human Experience

Everyone who has gamed for any period of time has at least one or two crazy stories regarding how things went down in a game.  When I went to my first GenCon, I remember talking with different people about Temple of Elemental Evil and how their character handled this or that challenge, and comparing notes.  It was fascinating to me how our experiences were diverse, but also held commonalities. Gamers could relate to those shared experiences, with little additional explanation, and find them personally relevant  It was back then that I realized that there was a lot of value to the published scenarios my group had played over the vast amount of homespun that we had undertaken.

Additionally, there was a certain sense of accomplishment in completing a published scenario — like reading a book or finishing a TV series or the like.  Knowing that you have “done” the module or adventure path is checking something off a list and closing a door on it, but in a way that provides a sense of completion rather than like losing a friend.  We’ve started printing up patches in our group when we finish Paizo’s Adventure Paths, suitable for stitching on your game bag, like a passport or luggage sticker.

And of course, there is some minimal level of quality that goes into a module or scenario that at least ensures that a story is being told, and hopefully makes enough sense for someone to publish it.  While many a wiseass is warming up his keyboard at this statement with choice examples of shite publishing, you have never played ‘homespun’ games with my buddies from high school, where a whole afternoon may have been wasted with what was, in essence, gibberings of madmen.  If it’s published, someone took a few minutes to write it down, which is at the very least an advantage over the things pouring out of someone’s head that may or may not make any sense.  And less cynically, there are some great stories that change and develop published game worlds and illuminate the reader and player as to mysteries of that game world (Expedition to the Ruins of Greyhawk is a real eye-opener, explaining many of Greyhawk’s mysteries and being a fine adventure revisiting the original Greyhawk Ruins Module, if you get the chance).

Shared experiences in known worlds, telling stories that can be related to friends and gaming colleagues, providing a sense of accomplishment.  This is the merit of playing published material.

The Original Home Game: The Personal Touch

For years I only played games out of my head, with very little published material. I hated published worlds like Greyhawk and Forgotten Realms, in fact, not liking to have to conform to their ideas of what D&D was (note, I am a big fan, nowadays, but back then, wouldn’t touch them).  My own world was a soup of the deities listed in the Deities and Demigods book, coupled with a few of my own.  While sort of a mess, everyone seemed to love what we were doing (though we were much younger then and may have had lower expectations).  Still, the merits behind the Homespun game remain.

Complete Freedom to create, and complete ability to adapt are the primary advantages of the homemade game.  From single scenario to long running Campaign, the GM can craft a story that embraces each players viewpoint and storyline, and build a story around that character and what the character and player want to see happen.  The story can be played out in any which way they prefer, and the unpredictability of player and character can be fully expressed without fear of ‘walking off the map’ or the GM’s overzealous railroading.  Ideally, anyway.

Making a game personal and relevant is one of the best ways to make that game memorable.  While the details may not be something that can be shared with outsiders, sharing is overrated.  How many times have you been cornered by a guy in a game story who wants to tell you about his character for 20 minutes?  See?  Not so great, is it?  What matters is that the player experience is meaningful to them while playing.  The camaraderie at the table is given higher value under this approach, as it should be.

Published Scenarios often tend to be repetitive, lackluster or just endlessly ponderous. The limitations of forcing someone back on track rather than letting them explore the world freely takes away one of the greatest aspects of table top gaming which is the ability to improvise and make decisions that fall outside of the preconfigured parameters of the game. It’s the primary advantage RPG’s have over a video game — Go anywhere, do anything.

Invention, improvisation, and personalized story telling are the greatest assets of the Homespun Game.

The Truth of it?

Surely, somewhere in between is where we have to find the middle ground that exemplifies the sweet spot in gaming.  A published module or adventure path, without personalization, can become dull and drag on (especially since it often takes a year to finish one).  A great GM takes published material and adapts it to his own use.  He inserts side quests and adds in NPC’s that make the story personal, and acknowledges each players desire to see their story told and their needs addressed so that they are made whole and come to life.  Great GM’s are not afraid to go off script, to turn the game on it’s ear, or even to walk away from the plot line entirely if players want to go in a different direction.  Guiding them back into the story or adapting the story to make it work with their new chosen path is where the GM’s craft really comes in.

It’s a fine art.  And even after playing and running for nearly 30 years, it’s one I still struggle to find.  But we have a lot of fun trying, and in the end, that’s the only thing that matters.

I’d like to hear your opinions… What do you think?  And what shared experiences have you had with other gamers that showed you a new approach to the same problem?

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