Last Saturday I ran a game for a bunch of friends in Toronto. It was part of our quasi-ongoing campaign that I hold at Dueling Grounds in lieu of Living Forgotten Realms. It didn't go especially well.
Oh, don't get me wrong, good times were had by all. Nobody left the game unhappy or feeling unsatisfied...except for me. Also, these feelings of dissatisfaction were not with my players (who continued to be absolutely banging), but with myself as a DM.
Let me break it down:
The adventure I ran consisted of the following:
-Introducing a new plot thread about violent taxation in the city the PCs are staying in.
-Giving them a chance at joining a lucrative airship expedition to a danger/treasure filled jungle continent.
-Crashing said airship with a Beholder mid flight.
-Having the PCs crash land in an unknown, dangerous locale.
I also made up the entire adventure off the top of my head in the span of about 20 mins. I did this because I literally didn't have any time to prepare anything else.
Whenever possible, please, DON'T DO THIS!
What I presented my players with was a functional adventure. There was some plot, the PCs got to make some choices and decide what path was best, there was the equivalent of an 'end boss', followed by a story cliff-hanger.
It was all perfectly functional, but it lacked the kind of story and world-building game play experiences I usually like to present when I DM a game. Let me pick it apart a little so you have a better understanding of what I did WRONG:
-Tax collectors in Vornheim (the city the PCs are in) was done as to remove any gold the PCs were carrying. This was to incentivize going on an expedition, as it was a high paying job and the PCs are now broke. While rooted in the world of story, this is still a lazy and disruptive mechanic. It represents one all-encompassing adventure hook that the PCs are essentially forced to follow. This is called 'Rail-roading', and is usually discouraged in game design.
-While I did give the PCs a chance to escape the tax collectors (their leaders being an Eladrin and a Drow named Slice and Crush), even upon escaping out a window of the inn they were staying in, they were then forced into an unavoidable fight with a bunch of hired thugs. Again, more 'rail-roading'.
-The NPCs who were involved with the hiring process weren't as interesting as I would have liked. One was a nameless dwarf buearocrat, the other was a female Eladrin airship captain named Captain Lady Orchid of Airhaven. Not only is her name kind of dumb, but her personality was never made concrete. She started out being portrayed as an aloof, high-class aristocrat. Then, later on, she seemed more like a brazen pirate. This lack of character consistency detracts from player's immersion in the game.
-The whole airship expedition was kind of a mess. It was described as a treasure hunting quest to Xendrik (the jungle continent of the world of Eberron), but it was also tied to one of the Sorcerer-Queens somehow, and there was the possibility of it being underhanded in some way, etc. Point is, it was an overcomplicated quest without any clear motivation for the players aside from "This quest rewards with 500gp each".
-The last encounter was with a Beholder who literally fell out of a rip in the fabric of space/time. The airship was approaching a magical storm, which the Captain refused to avoid, resulting in the airship crashing. Randomly dropping a monster in front of the PCs without the location/plot/ecology supporting it is a sign of lazy adventure design. My only reason for using a beholder was because I'd never gotten a chance to and wanted to try it. That is not a suitable reason.
Now, all of the above issues I had with my game stem from one problem: I did not prepare enough.
With enough preparation, I could have fixed each of the above problems. Plus, that preparation time probably wouldn't have taken all that long. All of the above problems could have been fixed with even an hour's worth of writing and thought. Like so:
-Three or more alternative adventure hooks could have been introduced for the players, all of them leading to the airship expedition with varying motivations and consequences.
-Alternative encounter solutions could have been prepared, letting the PCs avoid combat entirely if they chose to.
-If I'd given the NPCs more than just names and races (which is literally all I gave them*), their performance and interaction with the PCs would have been more believable and grounded in their character.
-Providing a clear end goal for the PCs, rather than just vague ideas at a quest, would allow the PCs to come up with their own reasons for wanting to take the expedition quest.
-Beholders are very rare monsters. I could have substituted it with one that made more sense given the surroundings (like some kind of bird...monster), or I could have given the appearance of a beholder more context by providing a few more setting details (like, why is there a magical storm brewing, and what could have caused it).
All of these solutions come from a bit of preparation. If you're like me, and you're writing up your campaign world as you go, preparation time is extremely important. One can only ad-lib and improvise for so long before s/he begins to stumble. This is where some good notes and characters can come in, saving your game.
Please, to all you new DMs out there, tempted to just "wing it" or rely entirely on a pre-written published adventure:
Do not neglect preparation time.
Even if you can only afford an hour or two, some preparation time is better than none. Your players will thank you for it.
*NOTE: Not entirely true...Slice and Crush were based, personality wise, on the Turks, Reno and Rude from FFVII.