DNAPhil has covered the disadvantages and downsides of published adventures in a separate article. I do not wholly disagree with his assessment; it’s one Gnome’s valid opinion. But more than one of us felt that a counterpoint article should be written, and my compulsion to volunteer led me here, to defend the published adventure. (Don’t worry, Phil; I’m technically unarmed.)
Published adventures (or, as we old farts called them, modules) are often seen as GM’s training wheels or the mark of an amateur, but there are a number of reasons to use them, and a number of ways to maximize their utility. I have used a metric shitload of published adventures in my day (in addition to ‘rolling my own’), and have learned a few things over the years.
Obviously, published adventures aren’t the be-all and end-all of adventure design. (Shameless, aren’t I?) You should be aware of a few caveats when using them:
- The quality of published adventures is as variable as the weather, so judge each one individually. At least one highly-regarded and heavily-playtested adventure from a Big Publisher has what many consider to be a serious flaw. (Highlight to see the spoiler: the ‘save or die’ rope bridge in WotC’s Forge of Fury).
- A published adventure still requires preparation. At the minimum, you should be very familiar with the adventure; don’t try to run it cold.
- You may need to put in as much work ‘customizing’ a published adventure as you would coming up with your own.
Since Phil’s so eagerly pointed out the shortcomings of the published adventure, we needn’t review them here. But here are some of the bigger advantages:
- A published adventure provides a framework to tie everything together – a site, a story, an individual, or mission, or a combination of the above. Most of the published adventures I’ve run have had a cohesive feel to them, as opposed to the chaos of a GM running out of ideas. (Been there,done that.)
- Playtesting and editing tend to weed out the gaping plot holes, inappropriately scaled challenges, and internal inconsistencies that gamers on both sides of the screen are all-too-familiar with.
- Depending upon the publisher, a published adventure will oftentimes highlight the better parts of the gaming system it was written for.
- Well-written adventures will present a diverse array of challenges to the party, from combat to social encounters to traps to riddles and puzzles.
- In addition, they will usually draw from a wide pool of opponents and situations, instead of from the GM’s tired old standbys. In this sense, published adventures can introduce a GM to new critters, tactics, environments, and scenarios.
If nothing else, published adventures are excellent raw material, ready to be passed through the GM’s chop shop and ‘repurposed’ into bits and pieces for your own adventures. As a famous gamer said in the forword to a certain book,
It’s not a sign of weakness on the part of a GM to use other people’s ideas now and then. Instead, it’s a sign that you care enough about what you’re doing that you’re going to open yourself up to what someone else might think, in order to keep things fresh. (Italics in original.)
Ways to Use Published Adventures
Aside from the obvious ‘run as written’ approach, or the aforementioned ‘GM’s chop shop’, you’ve got a few options when it comes to published adventures. The key is to remember that this is now your adventure — do with it as you will.
To integrate the adventure into your campaign, some reskinning or more extensive rewriting may be necessary. Fellow Gnome Scott Martin’s solid article, Customizing an Adventure covers this process in more depth. I look forward to hearing how someone ran “U1: The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh” in a modern setting.
But even if you are ‘merely’ going to run the adventure as written, you should be familiar with it before the dice hit the table. Before running a published adventure, I skim through, noting any obvious gotchas or incompatibilities with the campaign. I then re-read the adventure as if a party were going through it, using the map, checking mechanics and stats, and taking notes. Finally, I do any customizing, fill out my index cards, and pick out minis. This might take an hour or two per session, depending on the complexity of the adventure, and is time well spent.
Published adventures are a potential goldmine, but like many real gold mines, they require some work to separate the gold from the waste. Some of that work can be done by others, so read reviews of any potential adventures you might be interested in. Both RPG.net and RPGNow have excellent reviews, and I’m sure some of y’all will chime in with other review sites.
While published adventures do cost money, they can save a lot of time. But a better value can be had by looking for sales or discounts, or by scanning the clearance rack at your FLGS.
This article is merely another opinion on the value of published adventures, a counterpoint of sorts to Phil’s earlier article. If you’d like to chime in with review sites, deals on published adventures, or just have another opinion, sound off in the comments and let us know!
A good published adventure like Castle Whiterock is like the world’s most detailed random encounter table. You need a quest, a new opponent, a plot hook for a new PC? Just pick from the nearby rooms.
I then re-read the adventure as if a party were going through it
My best tip for that is to go in and note the starting positions of the monsters on the map. I can read the module three times and still this step raises all the important questions.
For me, it really is a time vs. money issue. I spend a tremendous amount of time in game prep as it is. Adding the time to draft and flesh-out adventures to that would likely mean I simply wouldn’t have the time to get it all done, or we’d play once a quarter.
Additionally, published adventures are what keep me going to new books and back to different sections of books to learn new things. For our table’s drug of choice, Pathfinder, that’s one of the best ways to learn all the rules: a few bites at a time.
Aside from the obvious utility of being able to mine a module for pregenerated NPCs, locations and other content, I feel one of the great advantages is in getting a look at the kind of scenarios the designers have in mind for their game. I wouldn’t say it’s a look behind the curtain as much as a view of the posters outside the theatre, but even that can give valuable assistance to a GM with a new game aiming to set an appropriate tone.
Of course, that doesn’t mean you have to follow it blindly – your group is your own – but it’s nice to see what other people have in mind.
The Freeport series of adventures from Green Ronin is one of my absolute favorites. It’s certainly an adventure series done correctly.
Tsenn already said it better than I probably would have, but I’ll lend my own voice in agreement. I rarely use published adventures outright; rather, I treat each one like a ‘parts car’ – using it as a resource for new NPCs, encounters, and scenarios, as well as to see how the parts fit together into a whole that may or may not be better than the sum of its parts.
For a lazy and middling-skilled DM such as myself, modules are a treasure-trove of ideas and mechanics that have already been parsed so I don’t have to agonize over them, leaving me to focus on the important part: fitting it all together to make a compelling adventure for my players. In the end, it all comes down to the old adage “Good DMs borrow; great DMs steal.”
I would like to add something to the argument for using published mods — but that’s a pretty comprehensive, piece. Thumbs up Kurt.
@A. Miles Davis – You are right about Freeport. I re-skinned it and ran it as a Warhammer FRP 2 campaign set in Sartosa and my players loved it.
All I can do is echo the above. I use ’em for starting points, for NPCs, for maps.
I enjoy reading a pile of modules, then finding ones with similar themes, and then weaving them into a bare-bones campaign. Say, three or four that all involve dwarves seeking to reclaim lost mountain homes. That could be epic! Or I have a string in which a paladin is available for rescuing the players, and one in which the party is to avenge the paladin’s death. I’d be verging into GMPC territory, but what if this is the way the paladin becomes a patron/mentor?
I’ve found modules to be very useful when starting with a new system: they can provide invaluable clues into the types of adventures that work well for that system. For example, it would be hard to stay running Call of Cthulhu adventures without seeing some of the published modules first. On the other hand I couldn’t run anything for Seventh Sea because I didn’t have any published modules, and I missed the idea of what a Seventh Sea scenario should be like.