How Pre-Generated Adventures Let You Test the RPG Waters

I always used to think that my job as a game master required me to bring my own creativity. That presenting my players with pre-written adventure material is akin to the dreaded railroading, not to mention a cop-out.

But lately, as I make my way back into the tabletop RPG hobby, I’m finding a new appreciation for both adventures and characters that someone else has pre-generated for me, not just when I’m trying a new set of rules out but also – and especially – when giving others a taste of the hobby.

My recent history with pre-gens

When I decided that, after my lady wife Vickie died, I was going to focus on getting back into RPGs, I managed to luck into a fun bunch of geeks at the Clubhouse Collective, a great little geek craft store in Mooroobool that holds an open-door get-together in the first Saturday of each month for Cairns’ geek population.

As I wanted to get straight in on showing them the awesomeness of the hobby, I put my collection of starter sets and beginner games (the Dungeons & Dragons one and the Star Wars: Force and Destiny one) plus a couple of smaller RPGs that I was confident I could get folks into and whip up an idea for quickly (InSpectres and Atomic Robo: The Roleplaying Game).

When I realised that the next session was Saturday, May the 4th, a.k.a. Star Wars Day (May the Fourth be with you), the choice became clear. I put the Force and Destiny kit out, including the extra two pre-generated characters available on the Web, and with five players sitting at the table, I got through the introductory challenges then went to the big confrontation in the temple at the end.

It went so well that the players all decided they wanted more of this RPG jazz, so I went and put a Force and Destiny campaign together for them (with a little help in building their home sector of space from Golden Lasso Games’ Decuma) and we’ve been playing almost every first Saturday of the month since. It’s not been perfect, but I’m chalking that up to learning a lot of game master craft as I go, and being willing to stick with it rather than letting my anxieties get the batter of me and calling the whole thing off.

After that, I tried putting a Wrath & Glory game together every Saturday fortnight at my place, but some frustration with both my own material and the general mood of the Warhammer 40,000 setting led me to setting that aside. Would trying the Wrath & Glory Starter Set have helped me identify that earlier? Maybe, maybe not; I did wind up trying Final Sanction, the Free RPG Day release for the Deathwatch roleplaying game back in 2012, a few times before realising that, much as I liked the Space Marines, I wasn’t quite ready to run a game about them. And I still bought the Deathwatch core rulebook and the Mark of the Xenos supplement.

However, since then, a friend took interest in the Starfinder roleplaying game sitting on my shelf, and after my Talfarr Sector campaign wound up tailing off a few years back (again, because I didn’t know quite what I was doing with it), I decided to go the pre-gen route and run Skitter Shot, a free adventure where the players must explore a ship adrift in space to find their lost captain. It’s given us a solid idea of how the rules work and what options the players have when it comes to creating characters of their own, not to mention myself some more confidence in running Starfinder.

Oh – and all the players are skittermanders. And I think they want to keep playing them. More on that in another post, though!

The benefits of pre-generated adventures

I have found no end of relief in being able to pick an adventure up, hand the players a ready-to-play character each, spend a little time with world and rules explanations and then just go, instead of working to come up with an adventure idea and create setting, characters and threats myself. It’s especially good when I’m working with an unfamiliar set of rules and I don’t know what is too much or too little challenge within those rules.

Knowing that there’s a finite end to the adventure also takes away the worry about plots or what’s coming up; while Skitter Shot, Final Sanction and “Mountaintop Rescue” all have sequel adventures (Skitter Crash, Oblivion’s Edge and Lure of the Lost, respectively) I know I can still serve my players up a discrete unit of fun with a fairly neat ending.

It’s also nice to be able to get an initial hit of inspiration off of someone else’s creativity. I can get hyped about existing environments and characters that I get to play for my players. Despite the eventual realisation that it wasn’t quite for me, I’d wanted to tour a group of players around Lordsholm, the setting of Final Sanction, and have them meet the planetary governor. Lord Thorsholt, for years.

Finally, it’s great to take the load off my imagination some. Hobbyists talk about the difference between playing an encounter out on a map-sheet versus gong pure theatre-of-the-mind, and while I used to be a theatre-of-the-mind snob, I’ve come to appreciate the convenience of even a basic, hand-scrawled arena plan; it allows my players and I to give our brains, juggling tactical decision making, rules knowledge and imagining the events as we describe them, something to rest on.

Similarly, pre-made descriptions and flavour text give my addled GM brain something to work with; a crutch supporting my my imagination and calculator-y brain, if you see what I mean.

The down side?

One possible issue is when players come up with something or ask questions not clearly identified in the adventure, or when the text gives an explanation for a thing that the players would likely have no way of finding out (like the source of the throwing dart with the returning fusion in the ship’s game room in Skitter Shot). It’s a little tough telling players “no”, especially when they’re in the creative swing of things.

I also struggle sometimes with repeated combat encounters, especially with monsters or non-sentient entities that can’t really show any character – okay, fine, that I can’t get to play as characters myself. As I mentioned above, I wound up skipping past a combat encounter in the “Mountaintop Rescue” mission in the Force and Destiny Beginner Game, simply because after at least two fights, another punch up against nameless adversaries (in this case, a pack of “icewolves”) would be dull.

I had a similar issue in the observatory fight in Skitter Shot, where the presented problem – a rift letting vicious planar vermin into the ship – is solved by one player making repeated checks of a single skill until they succeed three times (I cut it down to two as I was getting bored).

The future of pre-gens?

As if running Star Wars: Force and Destiny and potentially Starfinder wasn’t enough, I now have the mother of one of my players who’s keen to try this hobby her daughter is so keen on. She’d like to try Dungeons & Dragons out, which I used as an excuse to get my mitts on the just re-released Eberron campaign setting (which I’ve dug since it came out for Third Edition).

A good mate who’s a D&D nut says Wizards of the Coast are coming out with some Adventurer’s Guild modules for Eberron at the end of the year. I am keen to grab one, as well as any pre-generated characters they have available, and take the players on a spin through the magic-powered steampunk pulp noir continent of Khorvaire before possibly kicking a campaign off.

Dear God – Force and Destiny every month, Starfinder every fortnight and now a D&D campaign. Am I a glutton for punishment or what?

I only wish this were my game shelf.
No, this photo was taken at my FLGS, The Wicked Goblin (Shields Street, Cairns).
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