4 Tips for Running Published Adventures

If you are playing D&D, Pathfinder or any of the many other tabletop roleplaying games, there are some pretty good published adventures out there. Who are published adventures for? Anyone really… first time gamemasters, world builders looking for an adventure to run in their campaign or somebody just looking to have something to play Friday night. This week on the Campaign Trail I’ll look at 4 tips to help you run a published adventure the whole table will love.

1) Read It All

Take the time to read the whole adventure book. Long ago, to prepare for running a published adventure, I would simply open the book and read scan the first section that I was going to run. This was a bad idea since I had no idea where the adventure was taking my players, so we moved from section to section in the book without any real direction.

By reading the adventure cover to cover you’ll be able to react to your players, giving them real choices (even moving off the official published path) without losing the overall adventure. Your players will feel in charge and shouldn’t complain about being railroaded through the adventure. With your overall understanding of the story, you can get your players gently back on track (or just go your own way), allowing them to feel like they got there by their own actions.

Running a published adventure is not a way to completely avoid prep time. If you want to skim, run your own adventure and “borrow” the parts you like from a published adventure. Reading and comprehending the whole adventure takes work and might even take the same amount of time as creating your own adventure, especially in the case of the longer Storylines (D&D) and Adventure Paths (Pathfinder) that are popular today.

Read the adventure cover to cover, so you can make it your own.

2) Make It Your Own

Just because you’re running a published adventure doesn’t mean you aren’t running your adventure. There is no reason you need to run an adventure by the book. Here are some ways to really own a published adventure:

  • Change the Setting: Run Tyranny of Dragons storyline in the Eberron setting or run a Pathfinder Adventure Path in the Nentir Vale. The D&D adventure Princes of the Apocalypse even provides an entire chapter on how to run the campaign storyline in settings other than the Forgotten Realms. Just by changing the setting of a published adventure, it can become something entirely new and unique.
  • Add Your Own NPCs: The NPCs are your voice in the adventure. I’ve had some NPCs that I didn’t get for whatever reason. If you have an NPC that you don’t like – swap them out for someone you can really work with.
  • Swap Out Monsters: If you (or your players) don’t like a certain monster, change it to something else or reskin it. Just make sure you aren’t ignoring the adventure’s theme by selecting monsters than don’t fit. Avoid putting in monsters simply because they are “cool”.
  • Move Parts Around: If an encounter with an NPC, battle or mission makes more sense to run earlier or later, just move it.
  • Create a Written Outline: Write an outline for each section of the adventure, just like you would if you were going to write your own. Try to create multiple paths and forks that anticipate where your players might be heading as they travel through the adventure.
  • Personalize the Adventure for Each PC: Customize the adventure to provide hooks for each PC from their backstory and give them personalized goals or missions. Encourage your players to focus on what is the reason that their PC is going on this specific adventure with this group of adventurers. To easily create ties to a published adventure for each PC, you might consider using the pregenerated PCs or using any hooks provided by the adventure.

3) Pillage It for Parts to Run Your Game

I’ve heard some gamemasters say “running an adventure written by someone else doesn’t work for me” or “it will put my players on a railroad path“. Other gamemasters I know only like to use published adventures to “steal” a few ideas to use in their own adventure.

Use published adventures as the backdrop for running your adventure your way. A published adventure is a toolbox filled with modular parts for you to use how you like. A published adventure provides NPCs, maps, encounters, towns, dungeons that your players might interact with. Move the order of the modules around, replace NPCs, change the names of places, whatever works. Make sure to always try to keep the overall theme of the adventure intact – unless you swapped that too.

A good published adventure can let you skip most of the adventure building, giving you a backstory, threat, hooks, NPCs and more. All these details can allow you to focus on running the game versus building an adventure from scratch. I’ve had some real success dropping short adventures from both D&D (The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh, Eberron – Whispers of the Vampire’s Blade) and Pathfinder (Skull & Shackles) right into my own D&D 5th edition campaign.

Running a longer published adventure such as a Storyline or Adventure Path that spans 10, 15 or more levels can be much harder to keep your players on track. After 5 levels, you might find that your group is on an adventure that is completely unrecognizable from the published adventure. Awesome! You are doing it right as long as everyone is having fun.

4) Make It Fun and Interesting

Focus on what is fun. As mentioned above, you’re running your adventure and there is no reason you need to run it by the book. Create an experience that is interesting to both you and your players by using some of the ideas below:

  • If a section of the adventure is boring or makes no sense to include, skip it. If a quest or dungeon doesn’t make sense, rebuild it your own way.
  • If your players prefer exploration and investigation swap some battles out.
  • If the players prefer hack and slash, cut some social encounters out or introduce an NPC in a battle scenario.
  • Use the theories and suspicions of your players against them, personalizing the adventure.
  • If your players found an enemy/monster boring or redundant, avoid returning to it later in the adventure (or heavily reduce its frequency).
  • If an encounter with an important NPC was flat, try to swap the NPC’s role in the adventure for a minor NPC the players really connected with.

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Shawn Ellsworth

Shawn is an author and co-founder of Tribality.com. He first got into tabletop RPGs through ninjas and then by playing a Kender in Dragonlance. Years later, he can be found running games in the Nentir Vale and his own Seas of Vodari campaign setting.