Brcarl asked a couple of questions (1, 2) in the Suggestion Pot about using modules and personalizing them.

I’m currently running a published module (D&D 4e Keep on the Shadowfell), but have at least one player who would like the story to be more personalized toward the PCs. Any suggestions on how to take (often very generalized) published adventures and tweak them to integrate with PC backgrounds?

Also, along the lines of my prior post just above: I have one PC in the group who wants some background integration, but the others seem content to just play along with the story. I’ve offered up some potential hooks to the other players, but they haven’t taken the bait.

How do I satisfy my story-driven player’s gaming desires without boring the other players?

To my mind, your player preferences are a near perfect mix, so let’s look into this. Modules are tricky, because the module writer is doing a lot of work and it doesn’t make sense to redo everything yourself. (If that’s what you liked, you’d probably have created an adventure from scratch.) Here are some questions to consider.

Do you want to follow the module exactly? For my group, I’m happy to use a module as much as I can (to save prep), but don’t feel a need to stick to the module if I come up with something better on the fly. In some situations (such as RPGA games or playtesting) it’s important to stick to the script. If you’re concentrating on providing an experience for discussion– like people comparing how far they made it through the Tomb of Horrors— then you’ll want to stick closer to the written module.

What should the module provide? There are a number of reasons that a GM will pick up a module. One common reason for grabbing a module is that you’re low on prep time. If that’s the case, make sure your changes won’t take a lot of time to patch up. Inspiration is another common reason– and one that encourages reworking to your heart’s content. If you hate specific types of drudgery (stating out monsters, developing balanced encounters, allocating treasure, creating puzzles– whatever), then make sure you’re not creating more of the work that you bought the module to avoid.

Using a Module out of the Box

The first step with a module is to quickly read it through. At this point you don’t need to look for specifics, just read it like an abbreviated story. If you’re using the module for inspiration, bookmark the cool stuff– either mentally, or in your tiny notebook. See if there are any troublesome points– where you just can’t see how anyone will make the mental leap from A to B. (The “leap problem” is more common in storylike plots, than location based [dungeon] plots.) If you notice that it mentions systems or rules that you don’t understand, take the time now, while it’s calm to research them.

Personalizing the Module

At this point you understand the boxed module. Now it’s time to tweak it to fit your group.

If your players gave you backgrounds, read through them for NPCs. Also take a look at their character sheet and notice the “flavor” elements– if they are playing a cleric, which god do they worship? Do they have a masterwork weapon, or a superior set of thieves tools? These bits of flavor make good fodder for personalization.

From Background

The first thing to look for are background matches. Is there a person in the module who matches the role of an NPC in someone’s background? If so, consider having the character (from the background) replace the module’s NPC. Often this is just an issue of changing the name. If there’s a difference in physical description, make that change too. Their interactions with the party probably won’t change much (one innkeeper is often the same as another for overall story purposes), but changing their interaction style based on their history with the PC makes a huge difference.

Now it’s time to look at the bad guys. Look at the list of cults, vendettas, and rivals that were written into the PC backgrounds. Think back to your quick skim of the module– is there a close match for any of the bad guys in the histories? If your Paladin has written up an enmity for Tiamat’s followers, consider changing the Cult of Gruumsh in your module to a Cult of Tiamat. If a PC has a rival, consider adding the PC’s rival to the town and create a connection between the rival and one of the enemy groups.

A good twist for using bad guys is to look at the overall plot of the module and the various involved groups. Consider making one of these groups a cat’s paw for a villain in a PC backstory. To work them into the background, you don’t have to change much at all. Pick the thematically aligned group in the module. When the PCs encounter them, make sure at least one of the foes says something like “Get the blond one” or “Alanora Redcape is mine… you handle the others”. After the battle, place a short note among the dead goblin’s possessions, saying something like “Alanora Redcape is an enemy of mine. Return her ear and this note for a reward. -Z”

From The Sheet

If you don’t have a backstory to work from, you’ll have to work from the character sheet. Just as you did for the character with the backstory above, you’ll rely on coincidence a lot. Because there’s no written backstory, you don’t rely on the player to provide the background– instead, you draw them in with a rich detail here and there.

Items are a good place to start. The smith in town might have a masterwork sword for sale… that has the same maker’s mark as the fighter’s sword. If the fighter asks, it came in with the last caravan from the east. This is a good system for adding a little depth to the world without being boring. Unless the PCs decide to investigate, this takes no time and makes the world richer. If they do investigate, it sounds like they were interested after all…

If you want to add a subplot, the guy in town is the smith who forged the sword… and he’s eager to hear how the fighter got his hands on one of his blades. This is more active and interesting, but it runs the risk of giving that player something he wasn’t looking for. (Since he’s been dodging your hooks all along.) It is good technique for helping players stretch and explore some story driven gaming of their own.

Remember those gaps?

When you read through the adventure, you may have noticed some weak links connecting the module elements. A great way to improve the module (since you’d need to patch this in play anyway) is to figure out what the characters need to get from one point to the next. That’s where you drop in someone from their background, who bridges that gap.

So if you have something going on in two locations, and the clue to get from A to B is awfully weak, consider having the rogue’s espionage teacher hire them to infiltrate (location with clue to B). This can make your world look complex and layered– like you have wheels within wheels. Instead, you’re just using something the players already made get you across the chasm. It’s great when making a player happy also patches the adventure’s weak spot.

Your Turn

Those are a couple of quick examples of how you can personalize a module. I know many of you have extensive experience– with some modules you’re not just spackling over a few holes, you’re plastering the whole edifice. Share some of the best tricks you’ve come up with for turning a generic module into something that matches your group.