A one-shot adventure will often consist of nothing more than a keyed dungeon map. But there’s a lot more stuff you’ll need to actually run the game in practice. A good adventure design will not leave something major for the novice game master to improvise while under pressure, so I’ll use worked examples here from the Goblin Adventure I’m currently working on.
Box text is almost universally hated by seasoned game masters. These read-aloud sections are invariably overwrought and usually bring the game to a halt. The game master is looking at the module instead of paying attention to the situation at the table. The players zone out and maybe only catch 20% of what is said. It’s a mess.
If there’s one place where prepared text is a good idea, though, it’s the initial hook. There’s a whole lot of information about the basic constraints of the game that you need to get across in a very short time. On a really good day, you’ll have the players’ attention for about two minutes. The ideal is to give just enough information that the players respond with a couple of questions. That is instant engagement that allows for the players to step in and begin to take control of the game. The opening hook is sort of a necessary evil, but it’s still an evil. The game master can just put it out there and then step away as quick as possible!
Here’s an example:
You set sail from Major Port City in search of fabled treasure, but ended up shipwrecked in a strange new country. The Momerati– builders of many fantastic, towering spires– seem friendly enough and are both advanced and civilized. But now that they’ve helped you repair your vessel, they have a modest proposal for you…. You see, goblin raiders have been harassing their coastal cities for some time now. They’d like you to attend to them and in return, they offer you all the supplies you need for you trip back– and a full load of trade goods.
This is not a novel. This is a hand off. Note that I didn’t bother answering any of the “how come?” type questions. How come these advanced people need a ragtag group of adventurers to go after some wimpy goblins? How come goblins are such a problem here anyway? How come the offer is so generous…? Players will hopefully respond to this with additional questions about the campaign setting in general. They may ask what the town they’re in is like and so forth. Try to answer these in just a sentence or two– don’t give in to the temptation to launch into flowery monologues.
For the questions that are tied more closely to the details of the adventure, you may want to use the device of a patron to convey answers to the players….
While it is true that the truly great adventures all begin with the little old man handing the player characters a treasure map at the local tavern, there is, of course, more than one way to do it. A good patron character gives the game master a way to justify the adventure and give the player characters whatever they need to get started. A patron also provides an avenue for the game master to shift from an omniscient voice to speaking more in the context of the game and in the perspective of its non-player characters.
Patrons will have their own motives and are liable to be incorrect about the finer points of the information they give. If you are starting a brand new campaign, you will want them to appear as reliable and as trustworthy as possible. If play continues, you’ll be able to introduce more than one patron representing conflicting interests from levels of power and influence above that of the players. The players will ultimately get to choose which faction they help or perhaps even become a power in their own right. For an introductory adventure, however, all you’ll need is a means of facilitating the adventure.
It’s conceivable that the players are so gung ho about diving in that they push to go directly to the action without consulting this character. This is fine, but they are liable to find out a few things the hard way. In any case, you don’t want the patron chasing after the players to give advice. If the players happen to fall on their faces and come back to town empty handed, you can always introduce the patron at that point in order to get the game back on track. Ideally you should never be afraid to let the players take control of the pacing and the depth with which they engage the setting.
Here’s an example:
Balthazar is a satrap of the northern province. He has been chosen as a representative of his people because of natural ability to master languages. After a couple of weeks, he seems to speak fairly decent common… though his vocabulary is necessarily limited at this point. He indicates that the goblins have four ships and that they are armed with some kind of fire-rain.
That will hopefully get the players asking some clarifying questions!
Note one trick here… if they players ask something the game master hasn’t prepared for, he can always just say, “Balthazar doesn’t understand what you mean.” If play continues in further sessions, the game master will have time to flesh things out… and the patron’s fluency can grow right along with the player’s and the game master’s. For everything else, though, don’t be afraid to allow him to say or provide anything that helps get the game going!