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A Game is a Work in Progress

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 [1] say that three clues is the perfect number. Others [2] 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 [3], and not by some pimply-faced volunteer greenhorn GM [4] 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 [5]! 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.


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

10 Comments (Open | Close)

10 Comments To "A Game is a Work in Progress"

#1 Comment By Malky On November 19, 2009 @ 4:12 am

I’m a GM running his very first game, and I just finished up a short plotline where doing this absolutely shook up the game, but in a cool way.

My adventuring party was looking for a serial killer, and there was only one witness to any of the deaths. However, they couldn’t find the witness anywhere They got him to reveal himself (because, frankly, he wasn’t very smart) by putting an ad in the paper saying that he won a contest.

Now, in my original conception of this adventure, he was dead. Murdered by the allies of the serial killer. But I LOVED this idea. In the context of the plot elements I established so far, I thought it was fascinating and brilliant. So the witness was alive, and answered the ad in the paper. They found out who the murderer was, and got a super-expensive magic item that I hadn’t even intended to be in the game.

I thought it worked great. It wasn’t a matter of them needing more clues, or a better challenge, it’s just that my players came up with an idea that I thought was better than my ideas. It ended up being simpler than I imagined, but the willingness to stray from my original plot ended up working out.

This time. In the future, I expect I won’t be so lucky.

#2 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On November 19, 2009 @ 6:57 am

But…. but….. If I alter my adventure as written, it’s the same as admitting I made a mistake predicting the flow of the adventure, and then I would be a failure as a GM, Telas! My players would KNOW. They’d look across the table with their smug player smiles, and taunt me silently! “We know you just had to wing that part right there GM, because we’re too crafty for you…”. The only way to wipe those grins off their faces will be a Total Player Kill, and I’m sick of finding places to hide bodies!

#3 Comment By Rafe On November 19, 2009 @ 8:09 am

Plan the situation, not its resolution; i.e., let the players arrive at the situation of their own accord and don’t plan for how it will end. Let the players resolve it, then pick up planning/scheming/winging it for the next portion. That’s kind of how I try to GM.

#4 Comment By BryanB On November 19, 2009 @ 10:35 am

I agree with the article.

I used to try and do it the other way around. The school of hard knocks taught me that you can’t lay the whole thing out in concrete.

No matter how obvious you think finding a clue will be, there is at least a one in four chance that no one will think of the solution. Does that mean the adventure grinds to a halt. No! You have to figure out a way to impart the information when the entire session hinges upon it. I also try to avoid the entire session hinging on one clue, but there are times where it can’t be helped.

Furthermore, when you were sitting down and you wrote out the whole adventure in advance, taking into account five different outcomes for every scene? NOPE! When presented with five different options, the players will choose option six at least fifty percent of the time (or so it seems)!

Have the theme of the game down. Create your NPCs and give them motivations and goals. Write the opening scene down with a degree of specificity, but at some point, you are going to be modifying some of those expected scenes on the fly, in order to have smooth sailing as the game gets played.

A Game is a Work in Progress — Why waste all of that time handwringing over every little detail and possible outcome? 😀

#5 Comment By Scott Martin On November 19, 2009 @ 11:38 am

The advice to make up extra clues is great– it can be hard to come up with new clues on the fly.

If you’re more comfortable with improvising, as BryanB and Rafe are, you can invent new clues/interactions as the session goes on. It sounds like trusting your instincts really worked out for you Malky!

#6 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On November 19, 2009 @ 12:13 pm

Thanks for the comments; keep ’em coming.

This article is the result of one of those Zen moments that we all get. I was commenting on an email about planting clues, and I mentioned that an active GM is a great asset in a mystery game, because he (or she) can keep a hand on the ‘clue throttle’.

And then I had two realizations: 1) This applies to all aspects of an adventure, not just the clues. 2) I’m as guilty of it as anyone, since my unconscious template comes from published adventures.

This is one of the things I love about GMing: There is always another lesson to learn.

#7 Comment By Flynn On November 19, 2009 @ 4:46 pm

Even published adventures really aren’t written until they are played. The way the dice fall can easily change the course of an adventure, such as when a character dies or is mortally wounded, or if the bad guy who was supposed to get away doesn’t make it to the door before he is dropped by ranged attacks.

I personally prefer to write my adventures as frameworks and scenarios, and half the time, things never go as I’ve written them out. However, knowing the overall scenario helps me to improv the adventure and present what I hope is an entertaining evening of gaming. The fact that they keep coming back to the gaming table each week lets me know I do a reasonable job of it.

I’m very interested in reading your next series of articles as you are now GMing again after a break. It should be fun! 🙂

With Regards,

#8 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On November 19, 2009 @ 5:18 pm

[6] – Tell me about it! I needed a break (what with a new daughter, and all that entails), but it’s good to be back in the hot seat.

Some things are still a bit rusty, but I’ve definitely unlearned some bad habits in the interim. More later…

#9 Comment By LordVreeg On November 21, 2009 @ 3:23 pm

It’s a good topic.

The best GM’s are flexible and thrive on improvisation. Period. Not only should we have those skills avaialble, we should count on using them. Malky’s opening comment shows a perfect example of this (he’ll go far).

On stage, one of the first pieces of training an actor gets is to act like whatever happens was meant that way. The audience does not know any better, and if you move smoothly, they’ll never know there was a deviation from the script.

I will mention, on the subject of mysteries and clues, that sometimes a GM needs to have a little patience. If the players start to hear the steam wistle and trip over the railroad tracks, they don’t feel too wonderful about solving a mystery.
Especially in a sandbox game, let them pursue a different direction and resist the urge to throw more and more clues at them.

I run long sandbox games, and one of my groups finally figured out something I thought they were going to get to back in in the middle of 2007. But I refused to whack them in the head with clues again and again. It gives the setting more versimilitude when the players see logic actually working.

#10 Comment By Flynn On November 21, 2009 @ 3:37 pm


I think it’s valuable to point out, too, that if the players decide not to pursue clues or mysteries for that matter, the GM is then put in the position of deciding whether to pursue what the players want, or somehow bring them back to the adventure currently planned. I think some GMs follow the players on to new storylines and let the consequences (if any) fall where they will, and others prefer to guide the players back to the mystery storyline (either with a soft touch or a heavy hand).

I think the decision, of course, depends on the GM and the circumstances both in-game and out-of-game here. No one solution will work for everyone. I can say, though, that knowing your players in those regards should make the decision easier. For example, if your players don’t like to be railroaded, guiding with a heavy hand is out. Or, if your players are floundering with no direction of their own, perhaps they need a bit more obvious direction.

There are a lot of interesting ramifications that could come from this topic. I’m looking forward to seeing what comes up here.

With Regards,