Like all tabletop games, an RPG is a group effort. As long as everyone playing the game is determined to have fun, the game goes as well as it needs to go. You might not get all the rules "right", but the game master makes rulings that work well enough for that game session, and everyone has fun. Pretty standard board game experience. Admit it, you don't play Monopoly or Clue exactly by the book, either. Sometimes you have to make a special ruling for a weird edge case, or for something you don't feel like looking up. And you probably have a house rule or two, just to spice things up.
The puzzling thing about an RPG isn't the way it's played, it's how it's packaged. When you buy an RPG, you're just buying the rules. There's no game in the box. There's no box. It's just the rulebook.
Some RPG starter kits do have an adventure included in the box, along with dice and pre-built characters, and a simplified rule set. But the assumption is that you'll play the adventure once or twice, and then need more game. So most game publishers sell the game part of the RPG as separate modules, called "adventures" or, historically, "modules".
The "problem" with these adventures is that they're usually verbose, with a complex story and lots of big ideas that the game master must ingest, internalise, and then convey to players.
The Lost Mine of Phandelver adventure is a module explicitly written as an introductory scenario for a D&D 5th Edition starter set. In its first section, it embeds the first major event (a goblin attack) in a section called "Goblin Arrows". It hides the single most important sentence ("Four goblins are hiding in the woods, two on each side of the road. They wait until someone approaches the bodies and then attack.") after several paragraphs of preamble, and then provides a five-item bullet list of rules to keep in mind. One sends the game master to an appendix for goblin stat blocks, another details how surprise attacks work, then initiative, and then describes goblin tactics.
I don't consider this bad. I think it's very helpful. But it's also verbose and full of information. The expectation is clear: the game master must have read the adventure, possibly several times, prior to an attempt at playing the game. As the game master, you must already know the intent of each scenario before playing it, because you won't have the time to parse all the words during the actual game. In a way, you want two versions of the adventure: One to read beforehand, and then a cheatsheet for during the game. For example, here's a version of the first encounter suitable for play:
- Road with woods on either side
- 2 dead horses with black-feathered arrows
- 4 goblins hiding in woods
- DC 10 Wisdom (Survival): goblin trail to Cragmaw hideout
A published adventure is an investment. That's not a bad thing, it's just something to know before buying and playing one. And there are lots of great reasons to buy and play an adventure from your favourite publisher. I have five.
Playing an adventure by the publisher of your game system, or a partner of theirs, is a great way to immerse yourself in that system and its world. These publishers know the system better than you do, and they know the game world and its mythology. If you want to get to know the system from the perspective of the people who created and maintain it, play the adventures they publish.
Officially sanctioned adventures usually reflect the prime story material that a game world has to offer. Companies are usually hesitant to invest something lackluster.
I know there are exceptions. But invariably, they want to grab your attention (hopefully they do that honestly), and they want you to want to play their game.
The stories being told in published adventure modules usually pull out all stops, and new ones are being published several times a year. You can easily replace TV and movies with RPG adventures, and you'll get just as much (heck, probably more) enjoyment out of them. You don't even have to play them all. You can read most of them, and play a handful, and you'll probably find yourself doing just that, because these adventure books are usually really long.
The pace of a game is up to the game group. If you're dedicated to actually playing and not just socializing, you can power through a good number of adventures. But even doing a veritable speed run, you're probably looking at 14 to 24 hours of at-the-table game time. I did a speed run of Out of the Abyss with a friend, and it took a calendar week of playing every night for at least 2 hours to get through it. We could have played through it at least 3 more times at that rate and we'd have still missed out on a bunch of stuff, because there was just so much material there.
When an adventure is fully developed, side quests create themselves because there's so much implied activity in the game's setting. Sure, you could take the case to solve why fish people have been seen performing arcane rituals down by the docks, but while you're at it, why not take a few days to investigate why your doorman meets with that jazz singer at exactly 21:12 every night? To one gaming group, a 200 page adventure book is a fair investment for a month of play. To another, it's a great investment for two years of play.
One of the worst ways to learn a new system, in my opinion, is to throw player characters into an empty field with permission to do whatever they want. Next thing you know, player characters are digging for treasure, tracking hobgoblins, concocting poisons, and crafting. Are there rules for any of those things? All of those things? By the time you've found the page in an adjunct source book on the latest revision of crafting rules, the players have moved on to white water rafting. Time to go find the rules for turbulent water travel.
A sanctioned adventure limits the scope of which rules you need to know. With an adventure, you put player characters into predetermined situations with predetermined goals. Yes, there's still an infinite amount of things a player can choose to do, but pragmatically you can anticipate the 10 most likely things each game session, and you can look those rules up in advance. There are still bound to be unexpected events, but you can adjudicate those on a "for today" basis. Look those surprise rules up after the game, and now you've learned a few new aspects about your chosen system. It's the difference between a drip and a firehose.
A published adventure takes the burden of invention off the game master. The plot's been written, the situations proscribed, all you have to do is relay the book to the other players in a mildly obtuse manner.
As the game master, you can sit back and play the role of a Mentat, a human computer. If there are gaping plot holes or story elements that players just don't like, it's not your fault, it's the adventure. There's no pressure on you to perform, and there shouldn't be. Despite common misconceptions, the game master is just another player, no different from the Betrayer in Betrayal at House on the Hill or any other game where different physical players have unique roles.
Those are five good reasons. See my separate blog post for five good reasons to play your own adventure, instead (this site isn't called "mixed signals" for nothing.)
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