Published Adventures: Threat or Menace?

In my perfect world, published adventures for games would be teaching tools, examples of the game as a Platonic ideal. Holy wow does pretty much every published adventure ever written fail on this count.

So I’m looking through Tales From Wilderland, right? Thinking the “Don’t Leave the Path” adventure looks pretty straightforward, probably a good way to get my feet wet and teach the game to my players. Start with a fight, do some traveling, have some encounters. 

Structurally the adventure does exactly this. But seriously, in pretty much every example of how to resolve a situation, the writers have decided to just kind of go with whatever their gut says. I guess that’s because that’s how you run RPGs. 

The most egregious one, the one that made me want to throw the book across the room, was a little scene where the company is dealing with a mad hermit in the forest. If the characters fail their encounter, basically they have two shitty choices: either the company can leave his home and go into terrible weather or they can kill the hermit. Going out into this terrible storm makes the characters gain Fatigue; killing the hermit in his own home is a misdeed, and gains Shadow.

That’s all fine but the Fatigue-gaining bit? Totally made up. That’s not how your Fatigue goes up. I looked end-to-end in the rulebook (The One Ring Revised) and the only places I see Fatigue go up are as the result of a failed Fatigue test during a Journey, and one of the outcomes of a Hazard (again, during a Journey).

Buuuuut did they really just make it up? Am I reading too closely? As far as I can tell, I see only two scenarios:

1) They made it up for the adventure. There are numerous other little examples like this throughout Tales but that one stood out. 

or

2) There are unstated assumptions (or unwritten best practices) behind the application of the task failure rules that include the GM’s ability to impose mechanical as well as fictional consequences.

If it’s the first one, that is just lazy development. If it’s the second, it’s a huge but understandable blind spot: well of course the GM can do that (and literally anything else, rocks fall everyone dies). But leaving failure consequence guidelines unexplained strikes me as singularly sloppy.

The first scenario, lazy development, has merit as well. There are lots of little and not-so-little contradictions throughout the books, which always scares me when you’ve got a mechanically intricate game like TOR. The big one that jumps out at me is that the trigger for Hazards during a journey is different in TOR Revised (any fatigue test that gives an Eye) and in Hobbit Tales (any failed fatigue test that also includes an Eye). Maybe, maaaaaybe, Hobbit Tales came out after 1E and things changed. Still. 

I’m not in ugh never mind territory yet, but tomorrow is our first session and I’m proceeding with extreme caution.

(FTR I’m choosing to go with the “impose mechanical and/or fictional consequences as the fiction demands,” AW style, because that really is a more functional approach and lets me use Tales without gritting my teeth because I’m teaching the players the wrong game.)

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0 thoughts on “Published Adventures: Threat or Menace?”

  1. One of the best published adventures of all time that I read was a cheapass D&D adventure from the d20 glut era.

    Like 4 pages long. Oh no, some orcs attacked a caravan, here come the PCs into the midst of this.

    But wait.

    The introduction is sectioned out like this:

    * Are the PCs motivated by money? Here are the various options in terms of reasonable expectation of monetary reward in this situation.  

    * Are the PCs good-aligned? Here are some of the innocent people who are stuck in this bad situation who can be saved.

    * Are the PCs evil-aligned? Here’s some really dastardly things they could get up to in this situation.

    * Do the PCs have devotees of deities or spirits of type X, Y, or Z? Well, there are relevant things in this adventure to X, Y, and Z.

    AND there were multiple physical ways into the encounter.

    AND there were multiple “here’s what could happen next” after the encounter depending on what kind of PCs there were.

    It is the only, repeat, the only published adventure I’ve ever, ever seen that took into account the question of “how does this work at an actual table other than the writer’s?”

  2. I can’t meaningfully contribute to your Wilderland-specific woes. I can only chime in with my usual counterexample to the question of whether any published adventure serves as a good teaching tool for its game: Eyes of the Stone Thief for 13th Age.

    13th Age strongly promotes a hand-wavey spirit towards its rules, so any rules inconsistencies between Eyes and the 13th Age rules would probably be shrugged off (or even embraced) as “lazy development” by all authors involved. Or maybe they’d consider it “laissez-faire” development?

    But one of Eyes‘ unquestionable strengths is its organization and presentation that do their best to make sure you run a kick-ass 13th Age game. Gareth Hanrahan, the author of Eyes, always seems to have the 13th-Age-specific rules and setting information in his head and he makes a real effort to keep them in the foreground when possible.

    I believe that Eyes’ massive size (300+ pages) is the biggest hurdle to wider recognition of all of the things this book does right.

  3. It amuses me that that sort of thing gets up in your craw.  There are many things that raise my hackles, but “life works as you’d expect it to work, reinforce with available mechanics as necessary” isn’t one.

    That’s probably my Sim background talking, but even back in the D&D days where there were no rules for anything; if the players slept in their armor, on the ground, in the rain, I hit them with “That was dumb, you probably should invest in a tent and some bed rolls” penalties the next day…because…duh…

  4. “Run this like you would any rpg” is the actual worst bit of advice I can think of. 15 years of System Matters and this is where we’ve ended up?

    The tl;dr of my original post is probably “Tales From Wilderlands bears no resemblance to the game as explained and described in the rulebook.” I defy anyone to say that that’s a strength.

  5. Dave Turner​​ Hanrahan wrote Tales as well, so I suppose I should assume that, yes, he expects everyone to know How Every RPG Works.

  6. I don’t like to assume that the folks writing adventures have never playtested them or never even played the game they’re writing adventures for, but I know that happens all the time. More often, though, I think you don’t really get paid enough for adventure writing to get every single rule right every time. That’s the editor’s job.

  7. J. Walton agreed, and once upon a time I was among the ranks of writers who would do that. But to be clear, Tales goes beyond that into numerous repeated on the spot resolutions that I can only characterize as gut calls.

  8. Well, 13th Age’s vibe and text explicitly assumes that you’ve played and run D&D before, so it’s fair to expect that from an Eyes reader. However, Eyes contains a lot of guidance for the DM about how that particular adventure should work. Maybe Hanrahan’s TOR editors didn’t give him as much room to breathe as he found in Eyes 300+ pages?

  9. Reading this, it sounds a little like the adventures aren’t meant to further solidify and illuminate the rules of a neat little system, but are part of the general process of ideas turning into rules – the main game text serving merely as the hardest, densest (and most self-consistent) piece.

  10. Paul Czege​ War Profiteers by Black Death Publishing; not sure where you can get it anymore. Although reviewing my notes, I find I misremembered; it was a 4e adventure!

  11. Michael Prescott​ it’s like reading a transcript of rulings, but by transcribing them they become rules. And the actual body of rules doesn’t include any guidance at all as to how one might be expected to make future rulings.

    Honestly it’s fine. This is me resenting the moment when I discover how much work a game requires of me, especially when it’s not the kind of work I enjoy.

  12. I thiiiink Tales from Wilderland was the first TOR supplement. I wonder if it was being written while the rulebook was still being finalised? Although the first edition of TOR, even after it was finished, required a whole bunch of errata and qualification. Second edition seems much clearer.

    I have complicated feelings on TOR. It is absolutely beautiful. I love its focus and how intimately it gets Tolkein. But my experiences running and playing in it have been rather lukewarm.

    But but BUT the character creation process is one of the best in gaming. And the supplements are exceptional – adding to Middle Earth is a risky business, and they (especially Hanrahan) do a stunning job. I dream of using all their setting material for a Burning Wheel game.

  13. I don’t usually look to much mechanical guidance from adventures, except from the adventure included in the rulebook itself. In my experience, adventures and supplements are used for testing out ideas, or creating specific, one-time exceptions to the rules. It seems people think an adventure or supplement cannot be complete unless there is some new mechanical thing thrown in there for good measure, so to me, those things are all rule exceptions… True, the fact that they are THERE and sometimes even written by the game designers themselves, sort of gives me permission to incorporate them or drift even further… wait ’til you read Heart of the Wild, p.60, and find a Fellowship Phase Undertaking that allows your heroes to recover Hope, on a regular basis… How’s that for a game changer?  😀

  14. If there’s one weakness to TOR, it’s that there aren’t rules for mechanical consequences for failing rolls outside of Journeys and Combat, whereas such are clearly desirable. I use the mechanical consequences for failed Hazards in Journeys as rules for what could happen as a failed mechanical consequence on another test (or some decisions without a roll), but that’s not actually in the main rulebook.

    Oh, and Hobbit Tales came out well before Revised. The rules for Journeys are what changed the most between 1e and Revised. I expect minor inconsistencies there.

  15. Chiming in to agree wth Chris Gardiner that ToW was likely in development at the same time as the first edition of TOR, so there may have been in-flux bits.

    And FYI, C7 released a revised, hardcover edition of ToW after the updated TOR hardback came out. Is that the one you have, Paul? I’d be curious if there were corrections and such between the printings. I think I have it, so I could compare page references later tonight or something.

  16. It’s interesting, in pre-3e D&D, the modules always, always, always broke the rules of D&D. Even (and sometimes especially!) the organized play modules.  In 3e and 4e,, this decreased somewhat – there was enough of a “show your work” to the stats that they tended to cleave a lot closer to the rules.  I haven’t seen enough 5e stuff to be able to say one way or the other.

  17. Jason Corley right? That was on my mind as well. Even back when I was editing my very first T&T books (1990ish?) I’d run into something weird and Loomis would just wave his hand and ehhhh at me.

    TBH I’m not really sure why it’s in my head that published adventures “should” be a model of play. Despite all the evidence to the contrary I still feel that way!

  18. I’m going to guess it’s about communication bandwidth. I was joking about the 2am calls, obviously, but when the rules are in my hands but the designer is inaccessible, I have to rely solely on the text(s). So I want the rules and supplements to be a singular communication that’s cohesive, rather than a rolling average of the designer’s thoughts over a two-year period. All the more so if I’m really trying to replicate the exact experience the designer intended, because that requires such high-fidelity transmission.

  19. Pendragon published adventures were so bad they taught an entire generation to play wrong…in direct contradiction to one of the core principles of the game.

    Next to that it’s hard for me to get worked up when an adventure assigns penalties that are appropriate to the fiction, even when the core rules don’t explicitly give the GM permission to do that.

    I mean, I’m a huge proponent of System Matters but I’m pretty sure System Matters doesn’t mean the GM needs explicit in-rules permission for every single thing they do.

    Does the penalty make sense? Yes. Does it utilize existing game concepts in a new and different way? Yes. Does is invalidate a core principle of the game to use the mechanic that way? No.

    Then I’m still not seeing the problem.

    Is there some fundamental design principle that an adventure writer should never put on their “GM Hat” and include “house rule” type elements as part of an adventure design that I’m not aware of?

    Would it be different if the text called for a Travel Roll instead of just directly pinging Fatigue?

  20. Pendragon is the worst for that! The end scenario of the Uther Era is awful.

    Consequence adjudication is, to my mind, so important that it ought not be left unaddressed. I very much like Paul Mitchener​’s approach of using Hazard outcomes to calibrate, you know, how much hit is appropriate. I was thinking that was a good guideline for our game as well.

    I guess I would argue, if I had the energy for it, that consequence adjudication should establish a core principle of the game. Any game! Like, I can’t think of much that would be more important. So absent that, we’re back to relying on tradition and experience to feel out how to do it.

    I just do not love it when a game design, in this day and age, relies on that.

  21. Re violation of core principles: See, now I would say that taking a Fatigue ping for being forced out into bad weather violates a core principle. Nowhere else in the game do you take “fatigue damage” except from long ass journeys. And from one specific Hazard type. In all other cases, even falling and shit, it’s Endurance damage. So, yes, that’s a violation.

    Another one occurs to me: in the “Stay on the Path” scenario, apparently everyone takes a Corruption test when they walk into northern Mirkwood. Northern Mirkwood, which on the map is “wildlands,” not even “badlands” or “shadow lands” or whatever. That’s a violation as well.

    I’m just not sure what the upside is to giving scenario design a pass on outright breaking the rules. I sure don’t give Stafford a pass for the “everyone’s poisoned and dies” bit in GPC.

  22. I think it was Kult’s Taroticum that had a section of the adventure where the PCs were travelling between dimensions, and if they had a mishap they’d be stuck for a literal eternity in solid bedrock, but as they were still in some sort of half-astral form they were completely unharmed. In a conscious sort of stasis, I suppose – conscious, because that’s how they’d suffer for their mistakes. If they were to somehow return to the “real” world, no more than minutes would have gone by. I suppose this was intended as a cue for the GM to Deus Ex Machina them out of there at some point after they’d suffered enough, but I didn’t really pick up on that.

    Player: “An eternity, huh?”
    Me: “Yup. You feel bored… and soon enough the boredom gives way to an itching… and the itching gives way to torturous pain…”
    Player, interrupting: “Okay, I’m going to start swimming.”
    Me: “Um, it’s rock. Bedrock. You can’t swim through it!”
    Player: “It’s cool. I have an eternity to work on it, learn exactly how to do it. And I can’t hurt myself doing it, need no nourishment and have no expenses, and got nothing else to do.”
    Me: “Oh, um, okay… you spend some time… like, a year, maybe… and then a fingertip starts to wiggle a little.”
    Player: “Cool cool. I’ll just keep doing this until I can swim my way out of here.”
    Me: “Uh. Okay. Hrm.” ::starts turning to another player::
    Player: “Oh, hang on.” ::picks up the book, turns to the Experience and Learning chapter:: “Says here that I can improve my skills if I spend enough time on it.”
    Me: “Shit.”
    Player: ::marks 15 (max) under AGL, STR, CON, ‘Swim’ on his character sheet::

    Moral of story: if you’re going to make an experience system only contingent on subjective time spent with no abstract currency, don’t create a cosmology where characters get stuck in time bubbles on the reg. I wonder how many Kult characters come out with max values in ‘Interrogation’ and ‘Survival’ when reborn into a new body after being tortured by a Nepharite for an ‘eternity’.

  23. That’s not exactly what you’re talking about, Paul Beakley (a violation of the core rules in a supplement with no justification), but it seems like a similar sort of author <--> editor communication breakdown with respect to how the actual rules work.

  24. Paul, if the Tales of Wilderland book had a sentence in it that said something like “this book assigns Fatigue in several ways that are new to TOR, consider this an optional rule”, would the bit about earning fatigue by going out in the storm have bothered you as much?

    To ask the same question more generally, is it the adding of extra stuff that bothers you, or the not being explicit about adding extra stuff?

  25. Hans Messersmith Hm.

    Okay so that kind of gets back to the thing where writing down a ruling makes it a rule. Which is interesting and weird.

    If that sentence was in the book (probably more generally than the Fatigue thing, which is strictly an example), then I’d take it as encouragement to be creative about delivering consequences. Which in the case of TOR, would be a net positive — TOR itself says literally nothing about failure consequences other than to make sure they happen. That would turn Tales into a lesson in how to evaluate scope and fairness w/r/t failure adjudication. That’s good!

    The fact that it doesn’t, to my eye, strongly telegraphs that the writers and editors are operating with big blind spots. I hate to use the phrase but it’s a red flag. It undermines both my trust and my enthusiasm. 

    In this particular case, I took it to mean “ah, right, okay, this game is way more trad than all the little interlocking economies led me to believe. It’s fussy-trad, not fussy-indie.” Also a valuable lesson.

  26. One could argue (and probably successfully) that an Endurance drop instead of a Fatigue gain would have been the more RAW solution, but since they’re both points on the same scale that have no impact until they meet, mechanically its mostly the same thing.

    One could argue that an even better solution would be to call for a Travel Roll, given that being caught out in terrible weather is explicitly listed as the sort of thing Travel Rolls cover, and if failed the players would be hit with fatigue (technically even more fatigue since it would be equal to their gear not just a point).

    But if I were trying to justify this choice (go out in storm, suffer Fatigue) as a perfectly 100% valid application of existing rules, my logic would go as follows:

    1) The Hazard lists are explicitly suggestions, not exhaustive, and GMs are empowered to invent new ones based on the fiction on the fly…and that would obviously include consequences like injury or what not. And since there’s already a precedent for a Hazard pinging Fatigue directly, I’d consider myself as GM to be authorized to use that for Hazards I create as well.

    2) Hazards are generated by random roll (eye results) because of the underlying assumptions that these are things that seasoned travelers would actively try to avoid, and the randomness reflects those occasions where they are unable (despite best efforts) do do so. But what if the companions aren’t trying to avoid the Hazard? What if they are actively seeking out the Hazard on purpose? Clearly the game rules did not anticipate players would do that, but just as clearly its a thing that players could reasonably seek to do. So this would be a case (as in any RPG) where the GM is required to bend their mind to the task of coming up with a way to resolve it. If the Hazard is one that might be hard to find they might call for a skill roll to find it, or if it relies on the vagary of the weather just a randomizer. Such rulings are staples of all RPGs — they are, in fact, a defining feature of what differentiates an RPG from a board game or CRPG.

    3) So I can, as GM, clearly come up with a new Hazard called “caught outside in a really bad storm” and I can cause the impact to be a Fatigue hit and this is all legal, RAW. Players clearly have the autonomy over their characters to actively seek out such a Hazard in play. But since I’ve already established in the fiction that outside is a really bad storm, there’s no need for a roll related to the vagary of weather…it currently isn’t vague at all.

    Ergo: Really bad storm Hazard is in play. Players actively seek it out. No roll is needed, its right there and they chose to be in it. Boom, consequences as for any other Hazard, and the consequence for this Hazard is Fatigue gain.

    All perfectly legit, all completely consistent with RAW — no making up of egregious book throw inducing nonsense required. Only difference is its the adventure writer doing it, instead of the GM live at the table…but that strikes me as exactly the sort of teaching GMs how to play the game thing, that a good adventure writer should be doing.

    How’s that?

  27. Fatigue recovers at a much slower and specific rate than Endurance. Not at all the same thing, although it does force the Weary condition in the same way.

  28. To answer your question more broadly, I think we just need to agree to disagree. I don’t see anything in your reply that addresses the fact — sorry man, it’s a fact — that TOR’s actual text never discusses how to adjudicate failure consequences. It’s just not in there. In fact I will repeat the entirety of the RAW right here:

    If the acting player fails his roll, he doesn’t accomplish his objective. When this happens, the Loremaster narrates the consequences of the missed task. This usually follows intuitively from what the player was trying to do.

    First graf comment: “this usually follows intuitively” to me is a signal that this is a fiction-first failure: if you failed to sing a song that rallies your friends, then your friends aren’t rallied; if you failed a Lore test about what lives inside Mirkwood, then you misremembered.

    Whatever the case, the Loremaster must make sure that the task as a definite impact and produces consequences that cannot be ignored.

    Second graf comment: Marvelous! Yes, good, no whiffy failures. Everything has “a consequence.” But based on my first graf reading, close reading to me says “make sure it appears in the fiction” and a broader, more charitable reading might maybe fold mechanical consequences into that. But it’s not actually there. I have to guess that it’s there, and Tales seems to imply that that’s okay. 

    Also, I’m not seeing in TOR Rev that the Hazards table is “a suggestion.” Page 160 says roll and apply the consequences. They’re explicitly not suggestions, although maybe they were in 1E? (The narration explaining the intersection of Role + Hazard, now those are “suggestions.”)

    All this said, I think I’ve got a workable solution for my own game and I don’t need to keep going down this rabbit hole. It’s pretty obvious to me what their intent is and where the writers are coming from.

  29. Paul Beakley that answers my questions.  

    As an aside, I’m not sure what version of the rulebook you and Ralph Mazza are looking at, but on page 150 of my combined rules PDF, adding a point of fatigue is explicitly listed as a potential minor negative consequence for failing a prolonged action (albeit in the context of swimming a river), and an example of a prolonged action is “convincing an unwilling individual to help”.  A thin thread, but a thread nonetheless.

  30. Oh yeah, prolonged actions. Sure, I see that too. And they’re examples, and yeah for sure that opens up that whole decision space.

    I kind of hate prolonged actions. They’re IMO a direct contradiction of the let it ride rule in place (Task Results table, page 142, “Failure”). And since they’re explicitly optional (edit: or “advanced,” ugh), I just completely ignored that they even exist.

    Again, I feel like we’re going down a rabbit hole I don’t need or really want to go down. I have a solution! And Tales still sucks!

  31. There is a quote that I can never remember… Something like any “adaptation is an act of betrayal”? Adventures, I feel, are an adaptation of an RPG, and I am an adventure writer!

  32. For clarity:  The Hazard rules in Revised add an extra table for rolling the consequences.  But where I say the GM is free to invent hazards on the fly see page 161 of the Revised rules.  There is a list of sample Hazard Episodes used as illustrations and the GM is specifically directed to “tailor a Hazard event to the current adventure and its circumstance”.  The sample list is clearly not exhaustive because it doesn’t cover every possible combination of role and consequence.

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