You’ve written your adventure and double-checked everything. You carefully planned the traps, lovingly made certain that the monster challenge ratings corresponded with the party’s level. You’ve created encounters tailor-made for each of your PCs and their players. You’ve got fiendish traps, challenging but not overpowering monsters, engaging roleplaying encounters — everything is perfect. Now you’re ready for the moment of truth: actually running it.
You’ve put weeks (or at least days) of work into creating this perfect adventure; will your players see this as the labor of love you know it to be?
No. They don’t care that it took you a week to balance the challenge rating of all the monsters. They don’t care that you spent hours constructing traps or researching the effects of cold on the human body for the climatic encounter with the ice wizard. They generally don’t even care if the name under “written by” is yours or Monte Cook’s. They only care about one thing: was it fun?
And in the name of fun, your players will take your finely crafted work and turn it inside out and upside down. They’ll shred your carefully laid-out sequence of events and turn it into a plate of tangled spaghetti. They’ll insist on exploring unmapped areas. They’ll ascribe motives to your NPCs that never remotely crossed your mind, make major conflicts out of minor encounters you intended to be “local color,” and occasionally come to the right conclusions for all the wrong reasons.
What can you do to prevent this? Nothing.
That’s right: you can’t. You can’t stop players from running roughshod over your adventure. Nor should you try. Let them make a hash of your carefully planned time-line, and follow their lead. You wrote the plot: let the PCs write the story. They’re the stars of the show, after all. They’re the reason the show exists in the first place.
Granted, this is a lot easier said than done, especially if you have problems “winging” it. But no matter how carefully you planned your adventure, there’s going to be some point during it when you’ll have to improvise. This is one of the advantages of writing your own adventure: you know it inside and out, which will make it easier for you to adjust on the fly. You know what needs to happen and why it needs to happen. You can try to gently steer the PCs back on course, if that’s really necessary. You can drop hints, move important clues to where the PCs will find them, create an NPC on the spot who will send the characters back to the main storyline, if you need to.
If you’re feeling really confident, you can simply follow your players’ collective lead. When the PCs are way off, this is the time to step back to the core of the adventure. What is the basic conflict the PCs have to resolve? How can they accomplish that goal from where they are now? You may be able to shuffle around some events in your adventure or re-organize the time-line. You may find yourself creating encounters on the spot. The important thing here: let the players think they’re still on your time-line.
Pretend you planned all of this, that you foresaw the PCs’ actions and planned for them. The players will think you’re a genius. More importantly, the players will feel like they’re geniuses for having correctly “guessed” your intentions. And that’s the feeling that will keep them coming back to your table for more. The more you can give your players a sense of ownership of the adventure, the more you let their actions influence the course of the adventure, the more fun they’ll have. Let them surprise you. You may find that what they create will be even better than what you planned in the first place.