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I have had really bad experiences with Published adventures whenever I try and run a game. My parties always seem to do or ask questions that the published material just doesn't answer. Many times I can come up with an answer for these questions, but if there is a flaw in their internal reasoning (bad writing, bad character development) which I just can't explain. What are some good strategies for filling in these gaps.

For example, when I was running the Breakout Event for the Marvel Heroic System, my players wanted to know why S.H.I.E.L.D. was involved in a questionable exploitation process in Antarctica. The text didn't explain why, just the what. I wanted to give them an answer that seemed satisfactory but I also didn't want to deviate too far from what was the expected answer.

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Do you specifically want advice for filling plot holes, or just dealing with plot holes? For example, one of the ways of dealing with plot holes without filling them is deciding that they're mysteries—for the SHIELD example, SHIELD Command doesn't need to have a reason that they'd tell the PCs, so you don't need to answer it and you can wonder yourself why they're doing it and maybe playing the game will give you some answers, or not. –  SevenSidedDie May 30 '13 at 21:18
    
Ideally filling them in. Once I know what the holes are I can decide how to deal with them. –  James J. Regan IV May 30 '13 at 21:23

4 Answers 4

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I’ve had the exact same frustration, finding store bought adventures typically sloppy or incomplete. Publishers seem more interested in releasing rulebooks and supplements than creating solid adventures. Some of their reasoning might be that many GM’s prefer thin adventures to support improvisation. Since you’re asking this question, I assume you’re like me and prefer something more planned.

Improvisation vs. Planning Strictly speaking improvisation is no less valid than planning. Both have advantages and disadvantages. Improvisation is faster, a real advantage for GM’s considering how much work they must do. Improvisation also helps keep play connected to player interests. Planned adventures are more consistent and more focused, key to keeping a gaming session connected to the greater campaign. The best gameplay employs elements of both, but as you’ve noticed: Store bought adventures favor improvisation.

Plugging an Adventure into Your Campaign What the players do every session constitutes an adventure, essentially a chapter in the greater story of the campaign. No matter how complete a store-bought adventure is, it can never connect to your greater campaign without modification. So I find some amount of tweaking is always needed. Deciding how the adventure slots into your campaign is good place to start. Once you understand it’s place in your campaign, it should prove easier to modify the adventure further, or you may find that you can improvise from there.

Tweaking Adventures Further It’s often easier to notice that something is wrong with a store-bought adventure than to understand how to fix it. Below are some suggestions for further tweaking.

Plot Like a narrative, much of RPG gaming consists of plot - the stuff that’s happening. Plot is a chain of cause and effect. Because Nick Fury sent players to Antarctica, the villains there respond by doing A, which in turn causes the players to do B, and so on. When reviewing a store bought adventure, confirm that the events obey a proper cause and effect structure, particularly at the adventure’s beginning.

Character Every adventure will have at the least one character: an antagonist; a monster or villain opposing the player’s objectives. Many adventures fail to provide an actual conflict between the PC’s and the antagonist. Conflict is based on divergent goals, the players want A, but the villain wants B. They can’t both get what they want, thus the conflict. For clarity, stopping the bad guys is not a goal, nor is having fun playing. Advancement within the SHIELD organization (requiring the successful completion of the Antarctic mission) is a goal. Many store-bought adventures use alignment as a shorthand. The antagonist opposes the players because they are evil, but evil itself is not a goal. Review the material and confirm that the other characters truly have adventure goals that conflict with the PC’s campaign goals.

Story When gaming sessions take on the quality of storytelling, players find them far more engaging. Simply put, story connects plot to character, specifically the PC’s. Adventures that merely inflict events (plot) on the PC's, forcing them to react, fail to rise to the level of story. For that, an adventure must allow players to make decisions that cause the antagonists to react. This is ‘character driven’ storytelling. Many store-bought adventures are organized as set pieces, being map-based. Challenges reside at locations waiting for PC’s to arrive and trigger them like traps. If events are provided, they take the form of random encounters of little consequence to the adventure’s plot. Devise major events driven by likely player decisions, that will drive the plot and give the map a supporting rather than starring role.

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I tend to handle that the lazy way. Generally players will come up with a theory (or even better, several theories) as to why something is the way it is. They'll bandy the ideas about, and I just surreptitiously write down the one that makes the most sense and provides the most opportunities to create interesting situations later.

If your players aren't already discussing their theories, you can nudge them in that direction by either asking them directly ("How is Nigel reacting to this? What does he think is going on?") or via an NPC ("Sarah looks confused and asks Nigel what he thinks is going on.").

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Very often my players come up with better ideas for things than I had (not just with regards to plot holes, either!). It's so much more fun to sit there and smile evilly while your players fill things in for you. Plus, the player(s) who came up with the idea gets to feel smug that they "caught on" before everyone else. –  thatgirldm May 30 '13 at 22:55

There are a few different ways of going about this, all of which have their own strengths and weaknesses.

  • Make something up on the fly. This is great if you're a good improviser, but, well, most of us aren't. This is best for small details that the characters/players are only mildly interested in. Still, if you prefer detail to leaving it blank, this can work okay. The biggest issue here, aside from coming up with an answer that sounds just plain dumb, is that it is possible to make something too interesting here, causing the party to dump the current story in favor of your new idea.

  • Be honest. The big advantage to saying "I don't know, that isn't in the module" is that your players now know not to go off on that particular wild good chase. Which can be a good thing, especially if you're a beginning GM who hasn't mastered the old maxim of "when in doubt, roll and shout" which one uses when caught in a situation where there is no pre-written text in front of you. The big disadvantage is that most of the time you at least want to provide the illusion that the gaming experience is not on rails, and this is one of those reveals which can make it look as though the emperor has no clothes.

  • Shrug it off. "It's not important." This is like being honest, only you're angling towards keeping the game on-topic rather than getting sucked into a meta-gaming talk. If you've got a player in your group who is constantly asking questions like that... well, personally, I find that kind of player one of the most awesome kinds of players to work with, but some GMs don't, and this can be a way to shut them up (do you want to shut your players up? That seems like a topic for another thread).

  • Ask the group. This is the option I'd like to think I try to do the most, but it's often not easy, for a couple reasons. First and foremost, you really have to have the right combination of players for this. If you've got a bunch of powergamers used to the adversarial-GM model of RPGing, you're as likely to receive a "yeah, they're running a mutant laboratory that automatically gives you eight new powers for free! We go down there immediately!!!" kind of response. You probably won't get this if you've run your game like this from the start, but... if you haven't, don't expect players to suddenly stop looking for every edge they can get.

    Also, and this is probably what prevents most GMs from going this route, if you ask for advice, you ought to be prepared to take it wherever it leads. If the group decides that good old Nick Fury is running a pirate ship, your group is sending you a strong signal that they want to fight pirates, and even with an obviously dumb response like this it behooves you to try and find a way to make it work (like maybe instead of becoming a pirate, he's uncovered a grand pirate cartel that operates out of Antarctica?).

    The big advantage to this way of thinking is that it's easier to get your group to buy in to it. They'll realize immediately that an idea that they just came up with isn't going to be a new adventure you have them ready to go on right then and there, so you can go and work on it during the off-hours, and chances are they'll think it's cool because it's based on their ideas (and hey, even if it doesn't work out, you can helpfully remind them that it was their idea) (but try to make it work; needless to say, sabotaging even one session because you aren't fully behind it is a great way to get a group to rotate in a new GM). Also, do this enough and soon you'll get the players coming to you with story ideas. Maybe they can sit in the GM seat for a session or two while you trot out a player of your own, or, if you don't want to go that route, maybe you've set up a party with their own sense of agency where you don't even have to worry about providing adventure hooks because you have a sense of what they're going to try to accomplish week after week.

I think it's obvious which route I prefer (heh), but look... it's going to be different for every GM. If you really like world-building, you might not want to spoil your beautiful worlds with player input (then again, I'm guessing that if you were really into that you wouldn't be using pregen modules, but I could be wrong). The last model also requires a great deal more from players than many are used to, so if you've got a group of 90s era gamers who are bent on min-maxing and getting swag, it will probably blow up in your face. There is no one clear, easy answer here, except for the one in your heart (I'm sorry, that last sentence was possibly the dumbest thing I've ever typed).

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PS: Erik's idea is kind of a combination of 1 and 4 but admittedly it's a route I've not even considered. –  NotVonKaiser May 30 '13 at 22:45
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+1 for asking the players "Why do YOU think they're doing X with Y in Z?" –  F. Randall Farmer May 31 '13 at 5:53

Avoid In The First Place

First, try to predict the holes by reading and thoroughly prepping the adventure in the first place. Look at it from the PCs' point of view and ask "why?" (And especially, "why should I care?") If you see the gaps ahead of time, you can fill them or at least have an idea beforehand. I am assuming it goes without saying but you have absolutely no responsibility to run the adventure as written. Change it, fix it. "I ran into bad writing" often means either you didn't bother prepping the adventure or you stuck to the written word instead of using your own judgment. Don't go there.

Also try to use adventures that cover more bases for you. See New GM Advice - How to best use an Adventure Path; someone was asking "why is all this explanatory fluff and NPC backgrounds in the adventure?" for this reason.

Give Yourself Room

If a plot hole or unexplained/inconsistent thing comes up suddenly, try to buy yourself time. There may not be any direct way for the PCs to find out "why." Why am I in Antarctica? Because Nick Fury damn well told you to. Sometimes short of magical or high-tech forensics there may not be a way to find out. "I don't know why" isn't really a hole per se. If they have to make rolls to find out, they may fail. If they have to do any work to find out, well, PCs tend to get agitated and shoot people with information and blow up things that have evidence. Maybe they have to hack the SHIELD mainframe to find out why. Maybe they have to go talk to some shady character. Ninjas attack! You can set the pace and get yourself some time (or even to the end of a session) to figure it out or plug the hole.

In one game I ran, the PCs got interested in an abandoned house, so I gave it a light haunting. They got super interested and I cranked it up till they fled the house, and then it disappeared. They were in a frenzy of "what is the deal with that house?" It had been a throwaway but I decided to do more with it based on their interest. They had to get back to town to ask anyone about the house - "the old guy that lived there was rumored to be a warlock, but he died a while back." That's all they could find out then. I had the house reappear much later and they swarmed all over it. By the end I had decided that it was a key part of the overall plot - there's nothing to say it wasn't; just because it wasn't in my original plan is completely unknown to the players. But it appeared and disappeared several times, heightening the PCs' tension but also giving me a chance to decide on "why did that happen exactly..."

Just Make It Up

Improvising really isn't that hard. The entire world that the PCs have not come into contact with is a big malleable mass. Why is SHIELD doing something sketchy in Antarctica? Jeez, I can come up with a dozen reasons right now. Mind control! Dopplegangers! Infiltration! A sting operation! A training exercise designed to see if the PCs have the moral fiber to speak up! To avert an even greater evil! A false flag operation covering up something else! Trust yourself. Make something up and roll with it. Don't be afraid to change anything your players don't know, or heck anything they do know if you can get away with it (that's not Nick Fury, it's a Skrull!). And yes, you can cue off the PCs' theories as you hear them.

It's funny, some GMs look down on fluff-heavy modules on the grounds that "all that is the easy stuff to make up, just give me some stats and setpieces." It may not be that easy for all but most of what's holding you back is yourself. Just make up answers and bull through. You're worrying about it a lot more than your players will.

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+1 for "Don't be afraid to change anything your players don't know." –  Erik Schmidt May 31 '13 at 5:05
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+1 for the same. When you play a published adventure what you really run is an instance which you can customize. Some things won't make sense to you, others won't make sense to your campaign, and somethings won't be balanced for your PCs levels. So, you will change whatever is need for the adventure to fit with you, your players and your campaign. –  Flamma Jun 1 '13 at 23:13

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