A couple of years ago, I volunteered to write modules for the Living Arcanis campaign. As a whole, they turned out alright, but one of the modules taught me a valuable lesson that I think worth sharing. “Tree of Shadows” was the first module in a planned arc that involved a psionic secret society that manipulated one of the Arcanis’ cities behind the scenes. I created an elaborate back story for the module, including the resources and goals of the secret society. With that as a base, I wrote a convoluted plot that included mind control, magical impostors and false trails. The idea was that the obvious plot hook lead the players down a relatively easy path, with evidence and clues dropped along the way that inevitably lead to the condemnation of an innocent man the cult wanted dead. Clever players that paid more attention to certain small inconsistencies in the plot saw a more subtle hand at play and saved the cult’s victim from the gallows. I playtested it and it was found fun. It met all my expectations both as a DM and a player.
And that was the problem. I completely missed the target.
I premiered the module at a local convention for about 8 tables worth of players. I was at the convention and the feedback was…poor. Most players found it “too easy,” too talky and generally had a bad experience. It was not until much later I realized the module was a great experience for me to play, but badly designed for my intended audience. Most Arcanis games run at conventions. This means the DMs often have minimal preparation time and the complex module required prep time. My regular playtest group consisted of experienced, sneaky and devious gamers that had no issues finding the subtle clues in the plot. Convention players are of many different skill levels and happily took the cult’s obvious bait.
The end result is a module that perhaps 10% of the players enjoyed. I understand that most DMs run home games for a much smaller audience, but the same lesson applies. Writing an adventure that makes you, the DM, happy is not necessarily the one that you should write.
Which is a problem because pandering solely to your group’s preferences is a quick route to burnout. Nothing destroys a DM’s soul faster than writing adventures he does not enjoy. Happily this is not an insurmountable obstacle. It simply requires awareness of your own style and that of your game group. Assuming your group’s tastes differ from your own, simply observing their habits and making some tweaks to your campaign is enough.
I know this is obvious advice, but anecdotal evidence from my personal experience suggests it is more common that one would expect. Gamers always tell tales of “killer” DMs that TPK the party on a regular basis for personal amusement or DMs that inflict endless role-playing encounter that accomplish little beyond inducing coma in the players. Four real-time hours at the king’s gala making small talk is too much. Sure it is a great role-playing opportunity, but players need some action too.
Bottom line is write for yourself, but be aware of your player base. Do not let your ego and personal preference get in the way of understanding your players and giving them the only acceptable type of game. A fun one!
Trask, The Last Tyromancer