New the Role Playing Games? Welcome!
Overwhelmed by becoming a new GM? That’s Normal!
Ooo! Look at those Pre Prepared Published Adventure Modules!
Let’s Discuss the The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly.
Note: I’m going to refer to these Adventure Modules as “Canned Spam” as a pejorative because I don’t like Spam (no I’m not Hawai’ian) and I’m not a fan of Pre Prepared Published Adventure Modules. But that’s going to become obvious. Any rate, enjoy this article on “Canned Spam.”
As a new Game Master (GM) you are looking at a new game and unless someone taught you this hobby, you may not understand how these kind of games are supposed to work.
As a new GM, reading through a Canned Spam can be quite instructive. You can get a scope of the type of stories that the game designers intend to be told with their Role Playing Game (RPG).
Canned Span can also help you see what information you might need to run combat and social encounters.
Some series of modules are intended to help flesh out the scope and flavor of a unique game world.
In those respects Canned Spam can be useful as a learning tool . . .
Canned Spam also tends to have pretty pictures of in game items, opponents, locations, etc.
Canned Spam is a collection of chunks of meat, that are generically flavored, appeal to no one specifically, and tend to sit on a shelf for lengthy periods of time.
Most Game Modules have the same qualities. Because the author doesn’t know your group of player characters (PC’s) there is no tailoring to the individual background stories that your players come up with.
Another problem is that Canned Spam adventures are “set on rails” with most of the major decisions baked into the plot so that the players really don’t have agency on where the story leads them. While this isn’t necessarily ‘bad’ for new players who are very new to RPG’s, it does give new players the impression that the decision matrix for RPG’s are limited in scope.
A lot of Canned Spam is actually poorly designed! With the rush to get a product out the door, writers may hash out an okay story, but not actually understand the game rules. In turn the designed encounters aren’t properly balanced.
Since most Canned Spam adventures are “set on rails” the writer may set up sole decisions to advance the plot that sane and rational people would never consider! For instance one Canned Spam out there features Player Characters (PC’s) being given 20’ long poles to cross a 60’ wide river. The writer’s intent was to have the PC’s use the poles to pole vault across the river . . . Vaulting across any river with poles is physically impossible for several reasons. Using poles that are less than half the width of the river defy even the most illogical warped realities.
Most Canned Spam, being “set on rails” fail to address the issue of how new GM’s can alter the story to adapt to the Player’s actual preferred decisions. Most new GM’s will respond with “no you can’t do that! The adventure says you have to do THIS.” Even if “THIS” is an Athletics check using too short poles to vault a swiftly running piranha infested river.
Game balance is also nearly impossible to sort out in a Canned Spam module. Most RPG groups have an average of four players so that makes sense for the author to assume a party size of four. But if you show up with five Player Characters, that may make the Canned Spam too easy. And for a group of three Player Characters, that same Canned Spam may play like a death trap. Worse, if the encounters are so poorly balanced that not even twenty PC’s could survive, then that RPG begins to feel like an exercise in futility.
Riddles tend to riddle older Canned Spam and no one likes those. Either you know the solution to the riddle, because they covered that in ancient Greek history class and you remembered that particular fable or your group of players are stuck at a dead end because know one at the table knows what search phrase will conjure the appropriate answer for the riddle on their not-so-smart devices.
Remember those cool pictures that you show the players so that they can have an idea of what a Wuggleyfumple is? Well most publishers put the stats to those creatures right next to the picture. And now the players know everything they need to to defeat the Wuggleyfumples in the adventure.
One of the other problems that I have is inconsistency. An example if I may. In a Fantasy RPG set in the World of Greyhawk (NO, it wasn’t D&D, [thank the RPG Gawds]) the GM had made a decisive world defining comment that chess did not exist in the World of Greyhawk, but they had a variant called Dragon Chess that employed a 9×9 square board.
Okay. My PC picked up the Dragon Chess (games) skill. Easy enough.
Much MUCH later the GM picked up a World of Greyhawk Canned Spam module that had a puzzle in it involving an 8×8 grid. Not a checkerboard, but an 8×8 grid. One of the players suggested that the solution might be based on the rules of real world chess.
Not possible! I countered. World of Greyhawk doesn’t have chess. Ergo not a possibility.
And the GM just sat there dumbly because the Canned Spam puzzle WAS based on Gregorian Chess rules! He didn’t want to spoil the ‘puzzle’ correcting our misguided assumption because that would immediately tell us how to surpass the room.
Instead we wasted a full FOUR HOUR RPG session stuck on this one stupid puzzle.
Literally, the author of the game world had made a declarative statement, “No Chess in World of Greyhawk” but then designed a module which required the Characters to understand Real World Chess. THAT’s the kind of inconsistency that one is apt to find in Canned Spam.
And much of this story also displays poor GMing skills, but there’s a Canned Spam point in here too.
So we band of merry players handed the GM screen to the lackluster GM.
The setting had us band of Player Characters playing strangers in a strange land fighting to liberate oppressed peoples from tyrannical overlords.
We arrive a location “A” and liberate the locals. (Yay)!
As the PC’s sift through the flavor text and colorful description, I came up with the idea, “Why don’t we augment the locals defenses and train them on how to defend themselves from their former oppressors?” Think Magnificent Seven or Seven Samurai.
The GM retorts, “Nope. The adventure says that you need to go to location “B!”
Erm. Okay. Off to location “B” then.
Rinse repeat, and once we resolve the liberation of location “B” I get the brilliant idea, “Hey, Location A needs stuff that is built and location B and visa versa! Why don’t we set up a mutually beneficial trade route!
The GM retorts, “Nope. The adventure says that you need to go to location “C!”
Okay. We’re “on rails.” (sigh). Onto location C then.
At location C we hook up with an erstwhile ally who can ‘aid’ us in our liberation efforts. And conveniently, this ally has a ship that can help transport us to and from various locations.
Unique to my character (who was authorized by the GM) was the kit that they came with a Man sized vehicle. It could convey my character but no one else. (I’m not going to describe my “Cidi” scaled “Veritech,” but go drop both of those nouns into two search engines and you’ll get the idea fast enough).
Any rate, I get the brilliant idea for my character to range out and scout ahead with his fighter craft or to fly escort.
The GM reports that my fighter craft can’t fly fast enough to keep up with the ally’s ship. Even when I report that this little puppy can almost make Mach 1. (Read Mach .95)
Nope not fast enough. (sigh).
THEN the GM describes our ally’s ship as being an open deck Age of Sail floating thing with steam punk propellers as propulsion. And this is flying faster than Mach 1? How are the crew and passengers not being blown off the exposed deck? And how is the rigging not being torn off of this vessel? (Did I mention that this temporary GM is a moron? I guess I just did).
Okay we get to location “D.” We are invited to participate in a “race” involving vehicles resembling floating scooters or speeder bikes. One pilot only. Nice. Are these speeder bikes faster or slower than the Ally’s ship? Slower. Much slower.
Slower than Mach 1? Oh definitely.
My character is invited to participate in this race and I inquire how that would be fair?
GM’s solution is that my character’s Battloid interface could operate the controls.
Why would my character do that? The Fighter mode if FASTER than the speeder bikes.
Then the GM hints that the participants in this race often employ melee combat during these races.
While my Cidi scaled Veritech didn’t have missiles, it DID have nearly every other laser weapon system one would find on a Veritech. (IIRC the GU-11 Equivalent was a personal scaled heavy machine gun equivalent to that particular game system).
So the GM wants me to race around vs a bunch of speeder bikes when my character can literally out fly and outgun every other opponent?
Knowing that the GM is likely to nerf the hell out of my character or worse, let me slaughter all of the other opponents mercilessly (who am I kidding. He was using ridiculous ‘chase’ rules that would have completely ignored my character’s intrinsic capabilities), ergo I decide to decline to join the race.
Player Note: Has anyone else noticed that I’ve given up as a player in this campaign? That I’m just bidding my time until this particular odious flavor of Canned Spam expires? Well, I had.
The last thing that I remembered from this campaign was that after the race, our group were set up for the evening in luxurious accommodations.
Then the GM asks, “So. What are you all doing for the evening?”
Each player in turn replied, “Sleep.” The Canned Spam module had already hinted at our delivery to a location “E” so what was the point?
At this point the GM expresses confusion and surprise. Apparently the Canned Spam had assumed that the PC’s would miraculously jump the rails and sneak about the city at night!
Even after that, the rest of the group shrugged and retorted, “Nope. We’ll get some sleep and wait for the plot train to deliver us to location ‘E’ on the next day.” The sad reality was that no one cared about what was going on in the game. That particular Canned Spam was so distasteful that the only person enjoying the game was the dim witted GM!
It would have been a mercy if we had just dropped that particular Canned Spam at that point, but out of politeness, we soldiered on. I have no clue what happened after that. The entire campaign boiled down to:
Honestly, once we had figured out the formula, that particular campaign didn’t matter.
IIRC, we never let that GM run any game after that. Sadly, we should have know better before he started.
I HATE Canned Spam.
A lot of other players and GM’s tend to like Canned Spam and I pity the descendants of their Parents who play RPG’s.
But they seem to be a good gateway into starting RPG’s. Kind of like how training wheels are a good way to start learning how to ride a bicycle.
That’s okay. Once you get past your Canned Spam phase, you can begin the inevitable journey into Home Brew settings! (Another article to look forward to I suppose).