When I was younger, I didn’t have the shared experience of playing similar adventures. I didn’t go to conventions, and for me, it was kind of hard to “follow” how adventures worked. I was always afraid that there was some perfect, magic way that they were to flow, and if I couldn’t do it exactly so, I didn’t want to risk “doing it wrong.”
I’m not sure why the actual rules of the game were less intimidating to me. I know I got things wrong when I was running D&D or Star Frontiers, but I only worried about “doing it wrong” when it came to running published adventures.
Flash way forward to me being an adult, and coming back to RPGs after having been away for years. While I loved creating my own campaigns, my brain started trying to convince me that I would save time if I ran published games.
I tried it a few times. I can’t help but tinker with adventures as written now. I don’t so much worry about “doing it wrong,” and instead, I need to put my fingerprints on it. So, I’ll swap out encounters, get rid of the types of encounters I don’t like, look for alternate resolution methods for aspects of the adventure I don’t love but don’t want to get rid of.
But I’ve noticed a weird thing happen when it comes to running published adventures. I am way more likely to get thrown for a loop if PCs do something off the beaten path in a published adventure than if they do it in a campaign that I’m designing myself.
My campaign design theory is to look towards the end of a longer arc and see what I want to have happen for a resolution, in broad terms, and to see a few highlights that I want to have happen between the start of the campaign and that resolution. I like having a “hook” for why the characters are together and doing something. I don’t get too hung up on exactly what happens between the beginning and the big resolution of the story arc.
If characters follow up on a lead that isn’t a lead, I’ll look and see if the BBEG might have something going on logically in that direction. I don’t go full Quantum Ogre. I just think about if it’s likely I overlooked something that might logically be going on there, that might serve a similar purpose to what’s going on in the other direction. If I can’t see anything like that, then I have one of those “events” go off to show that the BBEG is doing stuff to advance their goals, and the PCs kind of wandered into an illegal cyber-cockfighting tournament that had nothing to do with the plot.
I have fun, and it seems to work, although I know there are people better at both keeping a more focused campaign entertaining, and people that can fully improv a campaign that turns out awesome. I’m neither of those, and I’m just kind of okay at what I do.
What does all of this have to do with published adventures? My brain doesn’t work the same way when I’m running published adventure as it does when I’m running my own campaigns. If players go off the beaten path, I have a harder time correcting for that behavior. I think my brain starts to run on autopilot a little bit. That’s not to say I’m not engaged with the story, or putting effort into it. But I’m not engaging the part of my brain that’s constantly recalculating the living campaign world as it exists in my brain in reaction to the players.
I’m noticing this a lot with my D&D Storm King’s Thunder game versus my Shadow of the Demon Lord game. I think everyone is having fun with Storm King’s Thunder, but right now, I’m doing a lot of “running the encounter” and not modelling the world in my brain. It’s fun, but it’s not as deep as engaging with other parts of my brain, and while they “need” to do the things they are doing for the story, I’m not as invested in personalizing things too much, because I want to get them to where I think the fun parts of the adventure are.
In my Shadow of the Demon Lord game, I’ve picked what the Shadow of the Demon Lord is (the way the world will end if the PCs don’t stop it), and I’ve seeded some NPCs from various factions around, but based on how the players have latched onto on aspects of a session versus another, I’ve already started to pivot from “this is the most obvious place to get this information” to “these guys would have it as well,” and “if they never get it, I’m changing this part to reflect it, and this session will deal with the fallout.”
Both groups are a lot of fun, and I have one person common to both. I’m having fun with both. But running the Shadow of the Demon Lord game is reminding me that I’m missing running campaigns of my own devising.
The most positive experience I can say that I have had with both Pathfinder Society and D&D Adventurer’s League is that I now have that shared experience of being able to discuss how different bands of adventurers faced the same adventure. That’s a great feeling, and I’m glad I have it. And I still like to read through published adventures, because I think it is enormously valuable to see the way the designers expect the game to be played, and even the ways they push the game out into different directions with adventure design. But I’m thinking after Storm King’s Thunder, I’m hanging up the published adventure hat for a while. Part of my brain has been itching, and I just remembered how to scratch it.