[generic] Why do so many published scenarios have gaping plot holes in them?

I'm in a ranty mode today, so here's an RPG rant. :) There are 3 examples below, but I've seen this many, many times. It's one of the reasons I often write my own scenarios when I'm running a campaign. It's also the reason that I do things like draw flowcharts of encounters when do prep work for published scenarios.

So what am I wittering on about? Answer: scenarios which have gaping plot holes and/or WTF moments which - at best - will have the GM scrambling to retcon, and at worst will make the scenario crash and burn.

Exhibit 1: The Expanse. The scenario in the main rulebook.
The PCs are hired to look for 2 missing scientists. They've been missing at least 3 weeks. One of them is single, lives alone. One of them is married with 2 teenaged kids. The scenario has information you can gain from talking to their co-workers. However it has no section about talking to the wife & kids. Yet it assumes no-one has done any investigation until now. If the GM doesn't notice this on a read thru, then the PCs will say "Hey, let's go talk to his family!" and then presumably the scenario writers envisioned a scene which goes like this:
PCs: Hello Mrs Smith & Teenage Kids. Your husband vanished 3 weeks ago, right?
Mrs Smith & Teenage Kids: Yes. Thank goodness you are here to investigate.
PCs: So what did the cops and station authorities say when you reported him missing?
Mrs Smith & Teenage Kids: Oh we didn't report him missing. Damn, we knew there was something important we'd forgotten to do!
The same scenario has a timetable of which asteroid a ship will be docked at when. If you take the schedule at face value, then the ship is a week's travel away from the PCs location. But the scenario as written has it present now.

Exhibit 2: Polaris (the French RPG about underwater cities). The scenario in the GM rulebook.
An important NPC has been kidnapped and is being held for ransom. The PCs are hired to contact the pirates who have him and negotiate his release. They are supposed to verify his ID with DNA, and haggle a price for his release. The GM knows secret stuff like the fact that the PCs are not the only bidders, plus other potentially interesting conspiracy stuff. There is a nice map of an undersea base.
When the PCs turn up to negotiate, the Important NPC loses control of his flaky psychic powers (the Polaris Effect). He freaks out like Carrie at the School Prom, only dialled up to 11. Pirates are vaporised. The undersea base is being ripped apart. If the PCs stay in the room for more than 2 rounds, they die. If they stay on the base, they die. If they touch him, they die. If they attack him, his powers increase and they die. If they talk him down, his powers abate and they can safely get him to their submarine... then the powers come back and
"it is very unlikely that the PCs would survive such an intense outbreak of the flux".
Basically if the PCs attempt to fulfil their mission in any way, they die. WTF?

Exhibit 3: The Scenario Which Cannot Be Named (Savage Worlds).
It can't be named, because it is a supernatural serial killer mystery in which the cover art and the title of the scenario ARE BOTH SPOILERS! It's like the title is Colonel Mustard Did It, and the cover art is of the Colonel in the library with a blood drenched candlestick. If you want to see what I mean, here's the link: spoilery link
So I noticed this, and solved it by covering the book with brown paper, so the PCs couldn't see the cover or title.
And noticed and solved the stupid idea that the PCs are just randomly passing through a small hick town, yet will insist on staying to investigate hideous murders, despite the local cops and FBI repeatedly telling them to get lost. Easy - make the PCs the local cops.
However I didn't notice until I ran it, that if the PCs don't do all the clues in a specific order before they head off to confront the bad guy, then they are stuffed. My PCs accumulated a whole raft of clues, talked to a whole bunch of local folk, including cops and witnesses... then bitched and moaned mightily that:
  1. All the clues had been about Native American mythology. When they confront the bad guy he's using a totally different mythology. Different tropes, different supernatural allies, different effects.
  2. All the clues indicate he's Hannibal Lector, but with supernatural motivation and supernatural sneakiness. And due to ballsed up timings on one encounter, some super-speed in his ability to murder someone, do a time consuming thing with the body, and escape (before the PCs have time to leave one building, run across the street and get into the back office of the building across the road). However, when they confront the bad guy he's not Hannibal Lector with a couple of neat tricks, he's Voldemort.
How does this stuff get to the publication stage? The Expanse and Polaris things I noticed on a read-through of the scenarios. The Savage Worlds one required running it to find some of the faults, so maybe the playtesters didn't notice them. Was I stupid to hide the cover? Did the players need to know it was Colonel Mustard to avoid getting killed by Colonel-Mustard-as-Voldemort?

Brass Jester

Staff member
Totally agree, also what bugs me is inaccuracies and just plain 'wrong'. I have a published pulp horror scenario set in 1920 that involves the PC's going to Brasilia, the capital of Brazil. Brasilia wasn't built until 1956!
I have another published scenario that involves the PC's pulling off a jewellery robbery in London (UK) in 1940.
The Blitz? What's that?
The jewellers has an armed security guard inside and out, day and night? In reality, they were lucky if they got an ARP or a nightwatchman, or a London bobbie armed with a whistle.
The police turn up and give chase in a squad car.
The blackout? What's that?

I keep this as a reminder how NOT to write an adventure


Rune Priest
Re: Brass Jester's point above I think a lot of writers are generally ignorant of history and are often too lazy (or are otherwise unable) to research it. I don't mind watching an episode of Foyles War and them using a five blade prop Spitfire in an episode set in the early war - I appreciate vintage aircraft can be hard to come by. What does annoy me is verbal anachronisms which stick out half mile e.g people in period dramas beginning sentences with "So..." or a northern farmer's wife in 40's WI series Home Fires using the word "scumbag". Oh yes, and plain clothes coppers being referred to as "detective" - this isn't America.
There's a fine line, but I suspect that there is a minimal amount of playtesting and an insufficient push to playtest more than once. I playtested Valkyrie Nine (for The Cthulhu Hack) half-a-dozen times before I published it -- and there's still a room missing off of the descriptions and the map isn't perfect. And there's plenty left for a GM to come up with on the fly.

I researched Repairer of Reputations (for Liminal) for months, then the first playtest run it imploded halfway through because something I was certain people would know, well... they didn't. I have tweaked it and added a note; but who knows what else might have got missed, and players always end up doing strange things when you least expect it.

Sometimes the happy path is the only one explored... maybe it has something to do with word count? Or deadlines? And don't get me started on historical verisimilitude – more often than not, no one even notices. I mean, did anyone really care that I checked what the Rainy River council offices were called or that they used to be the railway station? (Deep Roots, Mother's Love).

I guess if you GM an adventure, you're going to change something anyway, right? A bit of prep helps – and then the players do something completely different...
In our defence oft-times people are producing stuff with limited resources (time, team etc.) a lot of TTRPG stuff lacks a final polish.

Valkyrie 9 I LOVED when you ran it for us Paul - I still remember my "you bastard"moment when I realised what you were playing at. But when I tried to run it for myself........

Having ideas and creating compelling scenarios is one skill. Translating those scenarios into a form someone else could play is a TOTALLY DIFFERENT skill.* Ideally we'd all hand our stuff over to editors, playtesters etc. before publishing it. But we aren't all big companies.

To own up for just one of MY crimes. I created an excellent "campaign" for the Squadron UK rules. But its execution within the rules leaves a LOT to be desired. I know this. But to go back and fix it would take time, yield limited rewards and, TBH, would bore me.

I doubt things which are published have been playtested as much as people might think. I think it's made worse when - driven by KS culture - a so-so product is wrapped up in pseudo-professional wrappings. People do judge a book by its cover and if the cover looks good, people assume the contents will be as well.

I doubt it's what it was intended for, but the Polaris example sounds to me like a perfect slot zero game. I've recently become a fan of starting a campaign with a one off with pregens where EVERYBODY DIES (or ends up effectively unplayable). Then the players have some knowledge of the system and the stakes (and the attitudes and values of the referee) before making their long term characters. On here somewhere there's a write up of my recent run of that campaign from the SqUK rules. I set it in the modern day. But I started it with a one-off set back in the 80's. As could be predicted, players raised on D&D etc. ran riot with their superpowers. They didn't die, but just about everyone else did. "The Massacre on the Stratford Road" became part of the campaign history and was a constant reminder to players that they were supposed to be playing Heroes.

So, though I doubt it was written for that purpose, if I were ever going to play Polaris I'd happily run that scenario in session zero.

I also think the story is the thing. If you're history buff and you're aware of anachronisms in a scenario, I'd hope you can fix them pretty easily on the fly, unless they're integral to the plot. If Brasilia didn't exist in the 20's then just take them to whatever city was the capital at that time. You've bought the story and - more importantly - the stat blocks of the opponents.

I'm not trying to make excuses for poor poor writing. And Dr Bob and Paul have the right to make comments because they've both published adventures and put themselves out there. It's just - it ain't easy writing adventure for publication you know?

* BTW not trying to say YOU lack this skill, Paul. In the "Trail of the Wendigo" your sick little Advenure "Tainted meat" is an object lesson in how to get your ideas over. It's one of the very very few published Horror scenarios that I've understood and been able to run successfully multiple times.


Rune Priest
There's a fine line, but I suspect that there is a minimal amount of playtesting and an insufficient push to playtest more than once...
I remember GDW of Traveller fame were notorious for this. I was quite keen on their Dark Conspiracy game but a lot the stuff they published for it you'd read it and think that's never gonna work, or that just doesn't make sense - get the blue pencil out.

A long time ago I read an article by the often ascerbic Paul Mason in his mag Imazine in which he contended a lot of scenarios read like they'd been written by failed novelists intent on forcing the players into the writer's half baked story no matter what. I think there's something in that and it may well have something to do with Stronty Girl's original point.


Level 7 Blingmaster
Though I run the same scenario at different events with different groups of players it still surprises me how certain things are the same yet other things vary greatly from group to group.
I doubt it's what it was intended for, but the Polaris example sounds to me like a perfect slot zero game. I've recently become a fan of starting a campaign with a one off with pregens where EVERYBODY DIES (or ends up effectively unplayable). Then the players have some knowledge of the system and the stakes (and the attitudes and values of the referee) before making their long term characters.
So, though I doubt it was written for that purpose, if I were ever going to play Polaris I'd happily run that scenario in session zero.
There are no pregens for the scenario in the Polaris player book or GM book - just the 'one of each archetype ones' in char gen. Which is great is you want to send a Priest, a Pilot and a Pirate on the adventure, but useless if you need 3 pirates.

Your strategy of using pregens and having everyone die wouldn't wash with a couple of my player groups. I have one player who hates pregen characters with a vengeance and simply wouldn't turn up for that session. And many other players who would feel cheated and pissed off that you ran an 'unwinnable' scenario. I'm one of them. I tend to avoid Cthulhu because I get sick of dying and achieving virtually or actually nothing.


Rune Priest
You can playtest a scenario many, many times, but the plans never survive contact with the players.
I'd agree with that, but I don't think it can be an excuse for the sort of thing mentioned in the original post - Exhibit 1 strikes me as a particularly egregious example - or the kind of gross inaccuracies Brass Jester refers to.


Rune Priest
I would like to point out that a good GM can fill in the plot holes so the players never realise. I've done that before in pre-written scenarios. I have even skipped scenes that were unneeded or added my own content to pad out the scenario.

The worst scenario I ever encountered was a Delta Green one I played in. I can't recall the name of it off the top my head right at this moment. The players are all meant to die horribly at the end of the scenario in what I can only describe as a poison gas attack. It's meant as a one shot and we were given pre-generated characters to play. However, in one of the houses we entered in an earlier scene there were hazmat suits with gas masks in a locker. The locker and contents were simply throwaway remark in a sentence read out by the GM. As players we all decided that our characters would don the hazmat suits, so when later the attack occurred - oh wait we're okay and survived and the GM was left a little flustered. It didn't help that the GM hadn't read the scenario through before running it and was reading straight from the book! I'm not entirely sure if the players were meant to find the hazmat suits or not, it was certainly a gaping plot hole that all the players commented upon at the end of the scenario.
I suppose I find myself a little immune from hating the fact that pre-writes are not perfect because when I first GMd back in my teens I discovered that to be the case from day 1. My players would choose to do something not covered in the book, or I would notice that an NPC seemed able to be at three places at once. One glaring example was a location with an important piece of information had no clue leading to that location.

Since that date, I have used pre-writes as mines for ideas or stat blocks, or nowadays as something to help me get my creative juices running. I am the type of GM that doubts their own ideas, I hate starting something cold. At the table when I am interacting with my players I can improvise around my spine and it is that spine which pre-write often give me.

I know for certain that the games I run for my friends would never be published as I would hate having to turn them into something others could understand. For example, my recent L5R game which used a recently published scenario as a starting point (and less than a third of its material was used) has ended up with the Emperor dead, the PCs as ronin and a conspiratorial regime making excuses as to why one of the Princes has yet to be made Emperor. We got there through play and players choices, and I know if I tried to write that game it would make no logical sense.


The Guvnor
Staff member
That's pretty much what I do - I suspect most of us who do a bit of GMing are the same.
Maybe that's why there are plot holes?
Too many possibilities so sloppy thinking can get thru, since most of us rework it anyway. I know I do.
Maybe that's why there are plot holes?
Too many possibilities so sloppy thinking can get thru since most of us rework it anyway. I know I do.
That may be a possibility. It could also be that the authors think "ah the GM will fix it", or "the GM wants space to be creative". There are some very good pre-writes written like this on purpose and they are very easy to change around and use. I wish there were more, but apparently they are even harder to write.

After all, there are pre-writes regarded as classics that have issues, and some of them are simply down to the stat blocks. For example, I am certain the only reason Masks of Nyarlathotep does not end in a TPK in New York is either, the PCs do not go to a certain location or the GM pulls the punch that an NPC at that location has. And, although I know CoC often ends with PCs dying all over, it is tough to sell to say..." ok so you are the friends of the friends of x who motivated this entire game, so you are now further removed from the motivation behind this investigation than even they were, but they did all die in a mysterious fashion in your mind even though the authorities, EVERY last one of them says they did not..."

Because let's be honest starting characters do not usually have a connection or even starting belief in "dark goings-on" and are academic, but you have to make the choice to believe a bunch of conspiracy orientated arts weirdos over the establishment, and normally there are at least a few characters that come from that establishment when you play CoC. The second time I ran Masks, back in the 90s I realised the game only really worked if you sold it as a Pulp Action Adventure Game....and so, rapidly my CoC games became heretical until very recently.

Therefore, very often the very rationale behind many pre-writes are a plot hole, to begin with...

But I stopped caring and embraced the fun.