How to use a Pre-written Adventure

So you just purchased your shiny new adventure. You’re all set to run the next session now right? Wrong! No matter the gaming system, there are good ways to use a pre-made adventure, or there are awesome ways to use one. Learn how to get the most out of your investment to ensure your whole party has an awesome time.

For the rest of this article I will refer to the pre-written adventure/story/game aid as a module, because that’s the Old School term for a published adventure, and I’m an old school sort of person.

Preparation

There is one absolutely must do step when you receive a new module, and that’s READ IT! It sounds simple, but I’ve noticed that many people just skim the book then play, and that’s really not getting the best value out of your product. When you buy a module, you are buying a collection of ideas. Ideas which you must forge into something suitable for your players and play style. The rest of this article really just refines this primary point.

You should read not just the story and the stats, but make sure you familiarize yourself with any NPCs or key characters of the story. Think about how to depict those characters so each NPC has a unique form of expression in the game. Mannerisms, voice, habits, personal style, there are many ways you can give each NPC something unique which identifies them. Understand their motivations as well, so if things don’t go as planned, you understand how the major players in the story might react.

Look over maps and be sure you understand what you are seeing. Maps are done in many styles and it’s easy to miss key details that can be game changing. If opponents are familiar with the area, think about how they might use the map to their advantage.

Be sure to read the encounter statistics so you know how each monster, NPC, or challenge, is meant to be played. Also, evaluate those abilities against the abilities of your party and see if you need to adjust anything to keep things fair.

Above all, read the story. If you don’t understand the story, how can you hope to convey that story to the players? Also, if the play-through doesn’t go as planned, understanding the story should allow you to make adjustments on the fly.

Changing the Adventure

It’s perfectly fine to change the contents of a module. Any module is just a collection of ideas to help lift the load from having to write scenarios for your players. You have every right to use those core ideas and invest as much time as you want to make those ideas your own.

The key thing to understand though is that if the module is written well, then there should be an inherent balance to it, and even one tiny change can have a huge effect if you failed to understand the implications. So only make changes when you are confident that the integrity of the game will remain intact.

Scaling for Numbers

Not all modules consider the number of players might not be optimal for the adventure. Some systems scale easier than others, and the way you scale will depend a lot of the game system you are playing. Most often you can simply shift the number of bad guys encountered, or have some monster still be injured from a previous encounter.

Some systems offer special mechanics like rerolls, fate points or other special currencies which allow players an advantage. Granting a smaller group additional bonuses can offset for group size by giving more for a smaller group, or less for a larger group.

As a last resort you can also either add or subtract from the list of powers the bad guys have. Be careful though, because often a module has had powers carefully balanced and a change can have wider reaching issues than is immediately obvious.

When Good Adventures go Bad

One thing you quickly learn as a GM is that players rarely, if ever, follow the plan. This issue is further highlighted in modules which are not written specifically with your party in mind. When players start to go completely off script, the first and most important thing to do is to not panic. This is going to happen a lot, so take a breath and keep focused on how to bring things back onto track.

The second important thing to do is to not limit player agency and tell them they are not allowed to go off track, or to punish their actions in a heavy handed way until they comply. You must maintain the golden rule that RPGs are about having fun for all, and if the players are having fun, you’re still giving them a good game.

The best thing to do is take a little break, such as a coffee break or even calling the game session early if it’s not too early. You’re going to need a moment to evaluate the situation before you implement the changes. Start by thinking through the resources you have. What motivates the NPCs involved, what motivates the characters, what are the logical consequences of the actions being taken. The better you can immerse yourself in the world and the situation, the easier it will be to find a solution.

Ideally, you will come up with a fun side quest before returning to the main adventure. Perhaps you’ve even managed to reward the player’s creativity by allowing their plan to have uncovered some new helpful information or gained new tools to use.

Perhaps the players might need reminding that their plan of action is not in proper keeping with their character’s beliefs. This happens far more than many people realise, and just reminding a player to stay in character is enough to allow the game to continue on a sensible path. Reminding players of mission parameters is equally valuable to put things back on track.

There sometimes comes a time where the actions of the characters result in consequences that lead to a failed mission. You have to be prepared to let that play out at times in order to help a group (especially newer groups) recognise that while they can do what they want in the game, there are logical consequences for not thinking through their actions. Just be sure that as you play the module towards a failed result, you don’t punish players or berate them for their choices. Just play things through to the logical conclusion and take the result as a teaching moment. The heroes don’t always win, it’s not a given right of players to expect they are allowed to win regardless of their actions.

Buying a Lemon

Sometimes you will get a module that is really fairly worthless, or requires so much reworking to be useful, that it’s just not worth the time and effort involved. If that happens, it’s not a complete loss. Almost any module should have a few good ideas or encounters you can scavenge. Plug these few decent elements into other modules. Alternatively, take what’s decent and build around those points to write your own more suitable module.

Know your Party

It is the responsibility of any good GM to learn the capabilities of both the players and their characters. Knowing what they can and cannot handle is key to providing a challenging (and thus rewarding) experience for all involved.

This is where the purchased module can seriously fail you; it was written by someone who doesn’t know what your party can do. This cuts both ways, with some content being overly easy, while other content is excessively challenging. When I say ‘content’, I’m not just referring to combat encounters, understand that social, role-playing, puzzle solving, and countless other elements all count as content.

If a module includes content which is simply well outside the capacities of your party, you need to recognise this issue up front and plan around it. For example, if your party has little combat strength, but the module calls for a battle with a Doom-bot well above the capabilities of your group, then that’s an instant death encounter and that can be the death knell for the game.

When you encounter these roadblocks, don’t automatically throw them away. Learn to work with the module but provide alternative paths your group can take. If you can think of about three ways the group can overcome the challenge, there’s a good chance your players will be able to find a way as well. For example, warn the group somehow of the potential danger of the Doom-bot and add in the following potentials:

  • If the Doom-bot needs a pilot, have the party learn where the pilot might be found and intercepted so it can be killed/seduced/subdued etc.
  • Provide some way the Doom-bot might be sabotaged in order to prevent it from activating. Perhaps by using mechanical or technical skills to hobble the bot.
  • Have the party uncover protocols which says who commands when and why the Doom-bot can be activated, allowing the party to intercept and/or change the protocols in their favour.

In all the above examples, the Doom-bot remains a clear and present threat, but rather than being revealed for a big climatic battle your party is sure to lose, they can learn of it earlier and find creative, fun ways to use their other skills to mitigate the threat.

Image by Jack Holliday | Image Portfolio © Louis Porter, Jr. Design.