For 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.
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).
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.
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.
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.