Classic Adventures for the Modern Table – Part 1September 20, 2018 Off By TK
The roar of a hungry dragon, the clash of shimmering steel on scales, the relieved sigh of a damsel rescued from certain distress…
I, like many tabletop enthusiasts my age, grew up in a time of the classic Advanced Dungeons and Dragons adventure. I could live out my adolescent fantasies of freedom and godlike power in relative safety (until the resurgence of the Satanic Panic in my area, that is), content in the knowledge that I had entire worlds to march into and rescue from tyrannical wizards in crumbling towers or the crushing tide of undead that swept over the countryside like a sickle in a field of ripe wheat. Many who have run a table for today’s newcomers, however, notice a growing trend in roleplaying: sometimes the classic adventures simply do not satisfy, whether because of outdated tropes or a fixed narrative with no alternatives for side plots or character development. If you’ve noticed that your classic adventures have fallen flat or don’t seem to resonate with newcomers, here are some suggestions for updating your stories.
Tearing Up the Tracks
Does your classic adventure feature a one-note plot that pleads with the Dungeon Master to force the party back on task? Does the adventure advise you to punish players for saying “no” or wandering from the narrative, whether with one-shot death traps, teleportation, or uncooperative NPCS? Do you grow increasingly frustrated when your party doesn’t seem to notice carefully constructed clues? Are you annoyed when they’d rather explore an insignificant detail, ignoring the grand plot that awaits them if only they’d let you lead them to Area 35? Is your party resentful that you have no interest in pursuing their backstory hooks because they have to go through this portal right now?
Well, it sounds like your adventure is on rails and your party’s play style simply isn’t compatible. Next time you run a classic adventure, consider writing down only the NPCs and the main plot. Then, let your party go wild. Move the anchor points along their new paths and have a couple of side hooks related to their backstories that you’ve fleshed out in a Session 0. If the main issue is that your party simply isn’t interested in the official adventure, consider one or two additional side stories and let your group explore those as alternatives. Trust your party to enrich the story and you’ll find they’re more likely to trust you to craft a great adventure for them.
The Smart, Mobile Villain
Is this the tenth time you’ve dragged your party through a paint-by-numbers dungeon crawl and into the lair of Skullgrim the Decayed/Deathgazer the Undying/Murderbutt the Smelly? Does your party seem to have memorized each twist and turn of every adventure, anticipate every lurking nightmare behind every dark corner, and recite their terrible monologues with eyes closed, upside down, and in Pig Latin? Do your fearsome foes translate more as toothless hypothetical dangers than serious threats to your party?
My friend, these villains may be in need of some serious rehabilitation. Move them around, give them potions, let them use spells, make them retreat if the going gets tough! Ask yourself, “What does this villain want? What will they do to get it? What powers or resources do they actually have at their disposal? How do the party’s actions push this villain to do whatever they have to in order to put their plans in action?” Where did those undead get mithril armor? Who gave these orcs access to a Haste scroll? And the looks on their faces when Dark General Evil McBadderson isn’t in the skull-adorned throne room as advertised (and instead taking revenge for the murders of those seemingly inconsequential guards)? Delicious.
That’s it for this week’s Classic Adventures for the Modern Table. Next week, we’ll discuss updates that have social impact, such as the roles of women and POC in classic adventures and identifying isolating tropes in classic narratives.
About The Author
TK is a speculative fiction writer and part-time eldritch horror. They can be found as a cast member of The Demonplague, Unearthly Twilights, The Land Between Two Rivers, and Hell’s Belles on the Don’t Split the Podcast, WebDM, and Dungeons & Dragons networks, respectively. Their gothic and cosmic horror stories can be found at tkjwrites.com and very soon in print in a collaborative set of short stories and comics with artist Kayla Cline. TK themself can be found on Twitter @tkjoinsthefray.