Adventure modules are meant to give gaming groups a leg up on a new campaign or one-shot idea, but recently I’m finding there’s a lot more work than just painting by number.
I originally started GMing because I had too many stories and not enough time, so I kept running campaigns and one-shots to get them all out of my system. That meant that I rarely ran pre-built modules or adventure paths, even at conventions – I always had something homegrown that I wanted to run instead. And then I graduated college, and suddenly enough time but not enough money became enough money but not enough time, so modules began to look very, very attractive as an option.
But it was a rough transition. For years, I’d labored under the delusion that adventure modules were a magical choose-your-own-adventure book for a given scenario, full of flow charts that could predict any path the players might take through the adventure. What I got instead was a sprawling narrative written half like a story and half like an instruction manual, with key details often buried in flavor-rich text intended for the GM’s eyes only. The usable bits – NPC statblocks and maps – were divine, but any time my players made a decision, I had to read 1-2 paragraphs quietly to myself before I could tell them what was behind door number one. Worse yet, story-rich elements weren’t easily set apart from scenery or background elements, so it was difficult to pare down the fluff when time was short.
As a notoriously slow reader, it can take me 5-10 minutes to scour a page looking for the answer to the question my player just asked. Making something up only works if I know the answer I’m giving doesn’t crash into something else further in the module, so I have to know the whole thing backwards and forward before starting to be able to have any confidence running it in real time. The benefit of long-form descriptions would normally be that I could read them directly to my players, but I have yet to meet a group that has savored a dictated description over even a casual summary done extemporaneously. The latter resonates; the former can bore or come across as pretentious.
So if you’re a GM, new or old, considering (or reconsidering) adventure modules, I highly recommend treating it genuinely like homework. Don’t expect to run from the module itself – you’ll almost certainly want to build your own streamlined materials, using the module like a core rulebook rather than an outline. Read the module all the way through carefully, and take notes for yourself of key fixtures buried in the text. Mark the page and even the paragraph they appear on (or tab them, if you prefer) so that you can find the long-form description on the fly later while you’re running.
Try and identify the fluff from the essentials so you know what you can quickly disregard or safely improvise around versus the critical clues and catalysts that keep the module moving forward. Outline the path you expect the players to take, just like if you were designing the session from scratch, using the essentials you’ve mined out. In the end, the module largely becomes a reference book for maps, tables and NPC numbers with the occasional room description where needed – your outlines, clue cards or however you classically run will become the prime vehicle for the game.
If that sounds like a lot of work, it usually is, although it’s often still less work than prepping your own game from scratch. You can also mitigate a large slice of the tedium by knowing your players. If you’ll be running a module for a group you’re familiar with, find out what sort of characters they’re hoping to play before you construct your outlines to run from. Identify the NPCs, challenges and locales likely to hook your players and focus on them in terms of descriptions, which may allow you to ignore sideplots your players are much less likely to enjoy.
A group that isn’t as combat-minded may not take the option of fighting each other in order to earn the trust of the local gang, and may be more likely to try and sneak or con their way past the brutes instead. By the same token, many groups would love a chance to pit the PCs against each other in sanctioned combat and would jump at the chance, so you know what to focus on and what you can safely ignore. If you’re running a one-shot at a con, you don’t likely know what sort of players you’ll get, but convention games always require more prep – not being able to narrow your focus won’t likely mean much more work than just writing a module from scratch for people you’ve never met.
A big question becomes, “if I have to do all this work to make modules play-ready anyway, what’s the point?” First is the idea – if you’re stalled out on coming up with new adventures or interesting challenges, modules are rife idea farms for exactly that. Second is that modules often offer a cheap way to experiment with a new setting or system without investing in a new core rulebook set, so they’re often best with systems or settings you’re unfamiliar with than integrated into what you and your players already know. Many modules can also be dropped into a campaign at any point as a side venture buy time when life eats away at your planning opportunities for homegrown material.
Modules definitely aren’t the best solution for every group, but with a little prep, they can be used to get a new campaign off the ground while the GM is otherwise too busy for full-scale session planning. That momentum is often the difference between “this campaign sounds like a cool idea” and actually running it, and that’s well worth a little extra homework.