Tribal Knowledge: Playing with a Stranger’s Toys

DriveThruRPG, the DM’s Guild, and the gaming blogosphere are just the newest sources of the huge wealth of setting material that has been published for D&D, to say nothing of WotC’s extraordinarily deep catalog of content. In this article, I’m talking about the challenges of using someone else’s content, whether we’re talking about adventures or whole settings.

Published settings focus on detailed content with interesting connections, but don’t spend enough time on teaching people how to use that material in the constructive way that is intrinsically obvious to the initial creator(s). For any piece of content, there are four logical possibilities for how it connects to other things:

  • The creator had a particular idea in mind for what happens next, a secret to reveal about that thing, or some other way that the content relates to the rest of the world. The creator didn’t go into detail on what those were, either to leave things open for later users or… any of the other reasons people don’t write things, such as the finite nature of time and space.
  • The creator wasn’t particularly going anywhere with the idea. What is written is as far as the writer thought it out. One generally hopes this isn’t the case, because interconnection and thinking things through is a hallmark of good writing. On the other hand, the user can’t “break” anything, since there are no dependencies.
  • The creator solved for finite time and space by going into exhaustive detail about the secrets or meta-plot direction of the content, possibly by releasing a separate GM’s Guide to My Setting (such as this or this). This is both the best and worst solution. It’s the best because, if the writer(s) are good at their jobs, there’s rich, interwoven content with secrets, momentum, and interest. It’s the worst because all of that interconnection places the greatest possible burden on the GM’s memory to use all of it.
  • The creator accounted for multiple valid next steps or explanations behind mysteries, and listed several suggested solutions. This is not common; Eberron does this with its mysteries, and Dawning Star does this with its meta-plot, but I don’t think there are that many other extant examples. It shares the memory-load issues of some other ways of doing things, but it’s absolutely amazing for firing the GM’s imagination during session prep and supporting re-use.

I’ve always had a tough time picking up a setting book and creating new storylines or adventures with it. (If you’re one of those miserable bastards who finds this stuff easy, I hate you just a little bit.) My initial ideas consistently run toward introducing a completely new villain or organization, rather than using what’s already established in the setting. In a new campaign with a stranger’s setting, there’s nothing wrong with this, as such, except that if you were going to do that, you’re getting less of a benefit out of the setting you bought than you otherwise might. (It’s different in shared worlds, but I’ll get to that in a bit.)

For example, in Forgotten Realms, I could add a new villain organization with the power and scope of the Zhentarim. If I leave the Zhentarim in and just add in more bad guys, the conceptual space gets a bit cramped, though the setting could use the shakeup of bad guys having the upper hand for a bit. So… maybe a bad example, but the point is that the setting will be better off if I put forth extra effort to use what’s already there and develop my own feeling of ownership in the setting. There’s something fundamentally juvenile in that initial desire to tack on something completely my own, rather than doing the harder but more rewarding work of figuring out what makes the pre-existing content tick, and then running with that.

Another example: In a Mage: the Awakening chronicle of a few years ago, I used the published Boston setting. While I did use the primary cosmic evil from the book, the Prince of 100,000 Leaves, I found it incredibly hard to get any compelling conflict out of the existing mages and cabals. If I’m honest with myself, the problem was that I wasn’t willing to have NPCs start murdering each other or presenting the PCs with really hard choices, because I couldn’t completely invest myself in the NPCs presented. The ally/villain (Facebook status: I Owe You a Debt, But Our Goals Are Fundamentally Opposed) that they seemed to really care about was one of my own creation, though they didn’t know that until I told them. I think the reason they cared about him (both liking him and hating him, by turns) was that I invested more in bringing the character to life and making plotlines connect to him; I should have done the same with all of the setting’s characters.

The point I’m trying to make is that published content is useful and interesting, but doing anything more than scratching the surface has consistently been hard for me, and I might not be alone in this. Most of my campaigns are entirely my own creation, but there are still published settings that I adore (or have a more love-hate relationship with). For that matter, even after two whole chronicles I’m still not comfortable enough with M:tAw to spin up my own setting – modern occult fantasy being much more challenging content for me than medieval.

The bridge, I think, is to take the NPCs on the page and add one little tweak, in personality or goals, to break the ice on making them my own. When tackling an organization, drill down to the specific: this one Zhentarim officer carrying out this one narrow plan. Go ahead and figure out how that NPC connects to the Big Names in the setting book, though – that kind of thing can be really annoying to backfill, and all too often ends in a messy contradiction. You don’t need to figure out the whole of the Big Bad’s plot, but make sure that the junior officer’s goal would have factored into it if he had succeeded.

Another idea: run a freestanding adventure that doesn’t relate to the villain or organization, except that one of the rewards at the end of the adventure is a highly detailed infodump on the person or group in question. Why did the orc tribe have this? Good question, but one bloodstained uniform is enough explanation for most folks. The purpose of the infodump is firstly to get the players interested, because information is the beginning of leverage, and secondly to twist your own arm into using the content. It’s the conceptual equivalent of shouldering past the exposition and moving on to the rising action. (Once you’ve done this a few times, you’ll probably discover more graceful ways to accomplish the same thing.)


Let’s Put This into Action

I’m going to pluck a book at semi-random from my shelf of gaming books, starting… now.

Mists of Krynn it is. Before opening the book, I have no idea whether it is good, bad, or indifferent. It is my wife’s, not mine, so I’ve never cracked the cover before. I’ll open it now, and without judging the quality of ideas, figure out how to adapt the first game content I see into my own game.

I’ve opened to page 13, which happens to be the start of the adventure “Eyes of the Minotaur.”

Three to four characters of levels 3-5? That’s lucky – a lot of sessions of my campaign fit into that.

Okay, I said I wasn’t going to judge the quality of ideas. Technically, I’m not judging ideas if I point out that the adventure makes a lot of unwarranted assumptions about how the PCs react to things. That’s more execution than ideas, right? To be fair, writing a hook that PCs will take and that doesn’t railroad them is really hard. This one opens with a ship full of minotaurs approaching the PCs’ ship seemingly peacefully, only to suddenly capture and tie up the PCs. I’ve never met the player who would be okay with this opening. I’ve only occasionally met the player who doesn’t have some kind of contingency plan for this.

To use this, I’d start with either an NPC telling the PCs to let themselves get captured, or I would use this as the first adventure in a campaign, starting things off after the capture had taken place. If you’re not going to give the PCs choices, don’t pretend to give them choices. Consider purchasing their grudging compliance with Inspiration.

Okay, so the general idea of this adventure is decent. There’s a race of Proud Warrior Race Guys, and a particular village of… below-average specimens. One of those has been blinded; we don’t really need to use the fact that the blinding was because it was too stupid to follow the ritual’s instructions. The PCs get bribed or dragooned into fighting alongside one of the PWRGs in an arena duel. They get to check out or tamper with the arena beforehand, and then fight in it against another PWRG and her three Proud Warrior Race Disaffected Teenagers. The arena is dangerous in its own right.

I can do things with that. The arena map is good, too. The adventure’s problems – dammit, I said I wasn’t going to do this, but here I am – are that everything about it veers between “these guys are so numerous and scary that you can’t possibly win” and “but here’s a fight that’s dumbed down to your level for a silly reason.” I am firmly in the camp that says DMs never need to present silliness – it will leak in on its own.

The adventure’s other problem that I’d have to solve is that the reward for completion is returning to the status quo before the adventure, with five fewer minotaurs in the world. If the PCs had ways to make some interesting choices, like impressing the minotaurs enough to get something from them (even if it’s just acceptance into this anti-Lake-Woebegone of minotaur settlements), there would be some interest and a sense of resolution.

Adapting this into something worth using is surprisingly straightforward: replace the goofy justifications for things with sensible justifications. For example, one of the minotaurs smokes a stogie that generates a cloud of poison damage… that doesn’t affect her or anyone other than the PCs. Change this to a downgraded form of a gorgon’s poison breath attack, explain it with some sort of Gorgon Totem power (why wouldn’t minotaurs conflate worship of gorgons with Baphomet?), aaaand done. That justification works pretty well for her sons’ special features as well. The enslaved gnomes serve no purpose in the story, since the PCs aren’t allowed to talk to them any more than they’re allowed to interact with the minotaurs. That’s another thing I’d hasten to change – it’s fine for the minotaurs to be hostile, but even in 1e (and more so in every later edition), PCs could elicit different reactions from NPCs with high Charisma or spells. Be prepared for that to happen, and use those encounters to explain the village’s story. Without that, there’s no place in the adventure for them to even learn why all of this is happening, much less the connection between this village and the Dragon Highlords.

The arena map and its hazards really are pretty good. I don’t know about a giant porcupine as a threat, when one could use a slightly powered-down manticore. Other than that, the ankheg and the octopus are fine. I’d work on making Lord Myca – the “allied” minotaur – either more sympathetic or more threatening, because as it is he’s a hazard and hindrance to the PCs, but he automatically turns against them when the arena fight is done. They’re better off in every possible way to start the fight by killing him, and then engaging the rest of the fight on their own terms.

Chaining them together with heavy iron collars is pretty good too – I had great success with a recent adventure in which my PCs tied themselves together to avoid getting split up by a magical hedge maze. Handling the details of who could move and how far was aggravating in just the right way, since it was a hindrance the PCs invented on their own to avoid a more serious problem.

Most importantly of all, I’d give the adventure a reward of some kind beyond escape. Having Lord Myca thank them and pay them instead of turning on them is a good start. Since the PCs have also now dispatched the only real threat to his rule in this village, they should be able to use the village as a friendly base of operations, even against the overwhelming threat of all the other minotaurs of Mithas.

Oh, and in 5e, a 3rd-level bard, cleric, or druid could solve the adventure’s problem, with a single casting of lesser restoration. Sure, you could have that not work, as the blindness could be divinely imposed, but… is that really the most interesting outcome? Instead, let that re-level the playing field between Myca and the PCs. Myca can now make his enemies overconfident, as they expect him to be blind, and he can clean up with the minotaur bookies, who (as the adventure points out) lay 20:1 odds against him. Even the dimmest minotaur should figure out a little basic “you’ll be useful in the future” and start cementing an alliance.



Okay, fine, this isn’t the greatest example of taking what was already there and using it as-written. Instead, it’s an object lesson in the kinds of things you’ll probably have to change in order to make a lot of published content work for you, and in finding the most compelling part of the text. Adventure writers always have to railroad a little; the text could never account for all the ideas the players could have. Any adventure writer could railroad less than this, though. Your PCs want to jump the tracks, so make sure you’re ready to let them. To do that with this adventure, you’ll need to have a map of the village, and possibly the island, ready to go or ready to improvise.

One last point: why is so much of Krynn about comic relief rather than epic drama? Gully dwarves, tinker gnomes, kender, and now this village of minotaurs…


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Brandes Stoddard enjoys games of many kinds: video, tabletop, board, card, and live-action games. He runs Dust to Dust, a fantasy LARP in Georgia, and works in freelance game design and writing. He blogs about games at