What I Want from Published Adventures

Pyramid of ShadowsFor the past three years I’ve run through the entire 4th Edition H1 through E3 adventures from Wizards of the Coast. Some, like Pyramid of Shadows and King of the Trollhaunt Warrens, I ran very close to the book. Others, like Prince of Undeath, I used hardly anything but the battle map.

With three years of weekly games, published adventures gave me the framework I needed when I wouldn’t have the time to write up my own campaign, but in some cases modifying them took as much time as building it myself. I’ve spent these three years seeing what worked well for me with these published adventures and what did not. Adventures, as written, do not give me exactly what I want.

In short: I want adventures to break away from linear pre-built stories and instead deliver a toolbox of components I can use to build my own story.

Today I hope to get adventure publishers to think differently about the format they use and components they include in published adventures.

Building for Modularity

In numerous seminars, workshops, interviews, and even in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, authors and designers from WotC recommend making published adventures your own. They suggest modifying it however you need to get it to fit well into your own game. Unfortunately, most published adventures aren’t built this way. They’re written into linear parts with lengthy story descriptions about what will happen to the PCs at different stages. They’re written as a sequential series of battles as the PCs start on page 1 and work their way through to page 48.

Instead, what about building adventures for modularity? What about building a set of component parts that the DM can pick and choose from to build his or her own story?

Hammerfast and Vor Rukoth are examples of WotC’s attempt to move into a more modular style. Unfortunately they offer the wrong components. While typical adventures get too detailed into the step-by-step directions of the PCs, Vor Rukoth and Hammerfast spend too much time on general information and not enough on detailed encounter locations or timelines of villainous plots.

Components of My Ideal Published Adventure

When I buy a published adventure, I want the hard parts done for me. I want a world well prepared and fertile for interesting stories to grow out of. I want the tedious parts ready to go and a lot of room for me to build the story I want to tell within the area. More specifically, here are the components I’d love to see in a published adventure:


I want a series of locations. I’d like one “base of operations” type location for the PCs to rest, relax, meet people, restock equipment, and stuff like that. I’d also want three or so “adventure locations”. Old crypts, abandoned keeps, enemy fortresses, lost dungeons underneath the base of operations, stuff like that. Each of these should have a short history of the location, its function, its daily use, fantastic features, and other information. These locations shouldn’t be too closely tied to a central story or if so, that story should be wide open so I can choose how that story unfolds.

I would expect these locations to have about one page for the location description and one page for a map.

NPC Descriptions

For a typical adventure, I’d like three to five notable NPCs. Each of these NPCs should have a background, motivation, and a hook or two. I’d like five bullets for each NPC with vital information. This might include physical attributes or mannerisms, motivations, and things like that. Each might have stated difficulties for diplomacy, bluff, intimidate, and streetwise so PCs can find out how to get information out of them. Rather than specific DCs, I’d prefer difficulties like “hard”, “normal”, or “easy”. So King Edric might be easily flattered (easy bluff) but his time kidnapped by the Orc King makes him much less likely to be intimidated (hard intimidate).

Villain Descriptions

Like the NPCs, I should have three or four villains described in detail. This should include a short description of their motivations, mannerisms, and most importantly their ongoing plots. What are they doing right now? What are they trying to do? Like the NPCs above, give me five points I need to know about these villains. These descriptions should be as brief as possible but with enough detail to make this villain come alive. Of course, include a stat block and combat tactics.

Read-aloud Text Everywhere

Nearly all descriptive text throughout these ideal published adventures should be read-aloud text. Yes, we have a tendency to rewrite our flavor text anyway, but descriptive read-aloud text might end up saving me a lot of time when I’m running an open-ended adventure. I see no reason why just about any descriptive text in an adventure shouldn’t be written as read-aloud text. I may not use it, but it’s nice to have it there ready for me when I want it.

Encounter Areas

The adventure should include the common two-page spreads for important encounter areas in each of the “adventure locations”. I would expect only four or five of these for each adventure location. Unimportant areas would be covered in short descriptions (“This pantry has two goblins in it trying to reach a pie high up on a shelf”) rather than full two-page encounter designs. Instead of encounters acting like a series of monster closets for PCs to open, encounter areas should be built as functional locations that would exist and operate whether the PCs were there or not.


Timelines are something most adventures miss. Instead of having events triggered by direct PC interaction (“Drat, you entered my lab just as my secret plan was about to go off!”), the villains in this new style adventure would have a plan tied to a timeline. The PCs may get involved into this plot early or late, but the plot will move forward with or without them. This sort of timeline keeps the world moving regardless of the interactions of the PCs. The world isn’t just sitting around waiting for the PCs to discover it.

Components I Don’t Need

Eliminating things I don’t need is as critical to a good published adventure as including the things I need. First off, I need fewer words. Don’t give me a page wall-to-wall with background story. I’ll come up with it myself and tailor it to suit the story I want to tell. Think about the Eberron and Dark Sun campaign books with their “ten things about Dark Sun” format. I love those simple and direct ways to ensure I get the main points of the adventure.

I don’t need every single room filled out with an encounter. In general, I don’t need any encounter built for me that isn’t an important one. If I need to fill in some encounters to keep the game interesting, I can do that myself.

I don’t need a lot of descriptions about what will or won’t happen when the PCs get involved. Again, I’m not looking for a world that is triggered by the PCs interaction, I’m looking for some locations they might explore and some NPCs, both good and bad, with whom they might get involved.

Modular Modules

What I’m really looking for are modular modules. I want an adventure toolbox with all of the components I need to build my own adventure rather than be led by the nose down someone else’s story. I’ve heard many of the authors of these adventures themselves saying that the way to be successful with these adventures is to twist them and make them your own. It’s time we saw adventure toolkits designed to do exactly that.


  1. I think your ideal published adventure describes the newer WOTC line… check out the HS1 Slaying Stone.

    It is very much like you’re looking for. It describes a location, giving encounter sites which the DM uses within a general timeline, though the PC’s a free to explore and make their own way. It also takes you through the NPC’s and factions involved.

    I haven’t played it yet, but it looks promising.

  2. Check out Courts Of the Shadow Fey from Kobold Quarterly (its a bucket brigade sandbox). Heavy role playing, not all combat, and it looks like they put a lot of work into making combats really off base. The whole adventure will keep your players on edge… You could probably downplay the role play if that is your preference, but the battles look particularly well thought out.

    There is a 4e adaptation of the the Red Hand Of Doom which is running around. The Red Hand of Doom is considered one of the best adventures ever put out. The players must delay an onslaught of greenskins. They cannot win, only alter or delay the inevitable.

    Umm… I’m surprised you made it through the 9. I gave up after 1. I think that they put far too little effort into making these adventures fun or engaging. On the other hand, their new adventures are all quite good, but a little short.

    There are also quite a lot of interesting adventures on DDI. I fully expect Chaos Scar to be released as a complete heroic adventure path. It gives a reasonable sandbox setting to pick and choose your way through.

  3. Great post. I found your blog based on the recent Tome Show interview with you–which was a great talk on the Epic Tier play–thanks for that as well.

    In any event, I feel a little differently, i think. My experience with published adventures in 4E has been largely positive.

    For my ‘home campaign’, I don’t really use any published material. I looked at the Hammerfast and Vor Rukoth and found them fairly inspiring in terms of the over all creativity and cohesiveness–something i struggle with–I am not a ‘loop closer’ by nature. But they don’t work in the worlds that we are building.

    For one offs, ‘how-to-play’ D&D, and other fun stuff, i have been running stuff out of Dungeon Delves or the short adventures in the DMG or Eberron Campaign setting with some success. I think that the level of fluff in these adventures is enough to get people interested, but not overwhelming to the new player so that they will get confused about what they are trying to do. I really enjoyed the Dark Sun adventure that came out for free that had included character sheets with motivation and everything–a great way to jump people into the Dark Sun world if they were not familiar with it–and a fun adventure that you can take on a scouting camp out and be playing around the camp fire–easy and inclusive.

    I have started a campaign with my son, and another father son combo, in which are working our way through the Tomb of Horrors super adventure. We are rotating the DM tasks to give the kids a chance to run the game for a while and then coming back to parts of the ToH adventure when no one has anything appropriate to run. This is actually working out way better then I thought it would–currently, teaching me a ton about role playing and how to keep a table fun. And the other players all have a really vested interest in what goes on at the table, since they will be running it next week.

    Have you looked at the new Tomb of Horrors? What did you think? Thanks, David S.

  4. I’ve been converted by Chatty into a supporter of modules, because I believe that we should support the people in our hobby that publish. One of the things that I’m becoming increasingly convinced of, though, is that what people don’t want is modules, they want resources.
    Reading your “what you want” list, I see it as follows:

    Locations – a list of handy, flavourful and themed locations is a list of resources. I want the ability to, when the players hop off the rails and go into the forest, be able to flip open a book and have a “forest location” pre-planned.

    NPC Descriptions & Villain Descriptions – a bunch of well-described and thought out NPCs (and villains), some “core” to the adventure, but some that you can grab at the drop of a hat if the adventure demands them – character resources.

    Read-Aloud Text – verbal/textual resources. It’s nice if you can come up with this stuff on the fly, but if you’re short on time it is nicer if all the above has read-aloud text associated with it.

    Encounter Areas – much like the locations above, double points if you can throw which dungeon tiles to use or a battle-map in with the description and other resources that “link” to the area.

    Timelines – probably the least-“resource”-ey, but I’ve seen a fair number of “round following” event handler resources that a DM can mark as the battle continues, which would fit into the “resource” mold.

    I suppose the issue here is GM-control-freakness, but I rarely want to just copy-paste someone else’s narrative in between two adventures I’m running because I’m short on time: I’d rather explode their work, and include elements in my games from time to time to spice things up. So if I’m playing in a campaign world that I have designed, but I can yoink bits of an Eberron or Darksun adventure in with minimal work to do so, maybe working in individual goals of a module as a “long-term side-quest”, I think the module is amazing.

  5. I really enjoyed this article and have been making these points for years. I would greatly prefer a slew of adventures written to these specification rather than 30 PHBs and DMGs.

  6. I agree wholeheartedly! I look through the DDI dungeons all the time to try to steel characters, maps, encounters, and monsters, and it’s entirely too difficult.

    One quibble: Not sure about the “timeline that progresses regardless of PC’s” idea though. That seems more of a game-style choice. For my part, I like to create the illusion that the world is progressing without regard to our heroes, but in fact that is only partly true. When the PC’s decided that the dungeon was too dangerous to go into, I came up with a way for the action to sweep them up in a different way. But I made sure to create repercussions for the time delay and change of venue, so they know their decisions matter.

    In conclusion, I don’t need a timetable necessarily, but rather an outline of the plans and plots of the NPC’s and villains with steps and phases of those plans.

  7. I would actually love it if WOTC started producing more Dungeon Delve style adventures instead of longer adventures. I’ve used the hell out of the existing dungeon delve and would love them to produce more of them.

  8. Mike, Seems you know what your talking about. I had many similar feelings while I was running Thunderspire, Pyramid of Shadows (my groups favorite, so far), Troll Haunt, and Demon Queen’s Enclave. I modified them heavily, and basically just picked and chose encounters from them to actually run with my modified organic story between them.

    Instead of just talking about how you would like to see an adventure, it would be awesome if you could put it to practice. Make an adventure that is written modularly as you describe. You could even attempt to convert a published adventure into this format. I know that this is a fair amount of work, but if you make something that you plan to run, it will be fun work. 🙂

  9. Mike: I agree that the Delves are a great direction.

    I think that old style dungeons are a bit of a throwback to old D&D. In old D&D you gradually wore down the players with small encounters, puzzles and of course saving throws versus death, then tossed something big at them.

    In 4e, each fight is a knock down drag out brawl (IMO). And doing that for endless module after endless module is a bit of a drag.

    I think Storm Tower is the epitome of a delve style of adventure, and its really really fun. Delves are also really easy for a DM to mold into part of a campaign.

    WOTC? You reading this?

  10. I do like your article and I enjoyed reading it. I would venture to add that perhaps the linear adventures could be used for the early heroic tier play to use as a springboard to help new GMs. I remember all the first “lettered” modules giving me a good example of how to handle things and how to run adventures….and they were all pretty much linear…..given the dungeon crawl lets you skip around room order.

    I think any experienced DM would absolutely love what you described and I would add one thing there as well….how about in the space that is saved we get more player aids and handouts? I always thought it was cool when a module had a scratch-ily drawn players map of the city or the torn looking letter that you can hand out reading…”There is a deadly trap behind door number arrrrgggggghhhhh”
    and such.

    Great idea and keep on sharing!

  11. Great article, Mike. My biggest problems with published adventures is being given superfluous information. I don’t care about the world turtle and other background information that my players will never know. I like flavor, but when it veers off into a cosmological treatise I start skipping paragraphs.

    On triggers, I personally prefer event-based triggers. Time-based triggers assume that the DM is keeping track of time. I usually don’t keep an eye on game time unless the players are on a “ticking time bomb” quest.

  12. This is exactly the type of thing we are trying to do over at Nevermet Press. “Story is the Thing” – but the important thing is that the Story is your story — not the story of some designer who lives 1000 miles away in another decade. Not to plug too much, but we have two “adventure settings” coming out in the next couple months – one for 4E and another for Savage Worlds – both will include a full fledged traditional adventure, but that’s one chapter among a half-dozen. The other chapters include NPCs, new spells, organizations, villains, a bestiary, magic items, etc … all designed to help the GM build a consistently themed story.

    Loved this article – posted a cross post over on our facebook page. Nice work.

  13. Matthias Nagy says:

    This would be the perfect content for the Dungeon Magazine. Instead of all the prewritten adventures, I can rarly use, they should offer Adventure Ideas, NPCs, Encounters, and Location. Having all these modules would make it much easier for me to use these elements to make an adventure and would increase the content I could use.

    Dungeon Delve is also my favorite Book. just for the fact, that I can use the whole content as it is. The encounters can be intervowen with whatever is just needed.

    Thumps up for this article.


  1. […] primera, un artículo interesante en Critical hits sobre lo que se busca en una aventura publicada: http://critical-hits.com/2010/09/20/what-i-want-from-published-adventures/ […]

  2. […] • Clara Fernandez, also of the Singapore-MIT Gambit Game Lab, is a researcher on adventure games, puzzle design, and dream logic in games, as well as stories in simulated environments. Maybe it’s obvious to others how puzzle design for a game is so much like overall adventure design, but I found that focus insightful. Puzzles have to provide enough information and hooks to keep players moving forward and satisfied with that progress, otherwise frustration sets in. Without a social reason to continue investing, most players just quit. Our adventures need to do the same while providing enough “imagination space” to allow DMs and players to personalize the experience. I think this is what modern D&D adventures lack, as Mike Shea has intimated. […]