Do your adventures read like a published module?

Do they have the precise mix of clues, red herrings, and challenges to keep the players interested enough to work hard for the final reveal?

When you’re writing your adventures, do you agonize over maintaining the perfect balance between challenge and reward?

Then you’re doing it wrong.

Wait, what?

Bear with me for a bit here. Let’s simplify the situation by looking at mysteries, and the placement of clues when planning an adventure. Some folks say that three clues is the perfect number. Others say “forget about the actual number and how the clues are found, and focus on what the clues mean”. Some apparently assume that what worked once for them should work every time for every group (no link; too many potential targets).

(This is not to single out Justin Alexander or the Gumshoe system, but to point out that there are many approaches, including this one.)

Remember the GM

Repeat after me: A game is a work in progress.

Adventures are not written in stone. Nothing about them is “canon” until it is revealed at the table. Until that time, GMs are free to make the necessary changes to get the adventure to work for their group.

Remember that your adventure is going to be run by you, not by some zero-imagination computer program, and not by some pimply-faced volunteer greenhorn GM who couldn’t pour piss out of a boot if the instructions were printed on the heel. Why perfect and re-write the adventure, when you know full well that your players are going to trash your best-laid plans, and you’ll be improvising after the first hour?

Going back to the ‘placement of clues’ topic: It takes as many clues as is necessary to make a good mystery. That’s it. Complex formulas, magic numbers, and shiny new mechanics are not necessary. If your players fail to “get a clue”, then something bad will happen (there’s always a price for failure), and Viola! More clues show up.

Try this: Make up a few additional clues, and hand them out as needed. Avoid unnecessary red herrings; players have an uncanny ability to create their own without any outside assistance.

A Step Farther

Obviously, this is not just about mysteries and clues. If any element in the adventure isn’t working, the GM has the right (and frankly the responsibility) to fix it, regardless of what the adventure says. One of the easiest ways to do this is to ignore the parts of the adventure that aren’t working, and improvise a way past the problem.

But we (as geeks intellectuals) have a tendency to follow the directions, instead of using our common sense, our imagination, and our improvisational talents. Forget about writing perfect adventures. Forget about running adventures perfectly. Focus on making the game work. And be willing to toss out what the adventure says, even if you wrote it.


  • This probably doesn’t apply to adventures written for tournament play, where the GM‘s latitude is limited. 
  • This doesn’t necessarily apply to adventures written for publication, but there’s no reason it shouldn’t.

Got a dissenting opinion or another approach? Did I gore your sacred cow? Sound off in the comments and let us know!