What could go wrong with published adventure modules? A lot!

I don’t that often rely on adventures written by others, usually I try to come up with my own stuff. But once in a while, especially when I am not feeling particular creative or when I don’t have the time to properly prepare anything, I just use an adventure that I bought and try to make it fit into my campaign. And especially when I try out a new game or when I plan a one-shot game, adventures written by someone who I guess is more familiar with the game in question is usually a good idea. Or is it?

Alas that’s not always the case. As I see it, you usually purchase adventures to make things easier for you. But in my experience a lot of adventure modules available for purchase are not that great. I don’t want to talk about any adventure in particular, mainly because there are some issues I have seen way too often. What follows is my list of things that adventure authors should try to avoid.

No proper GM summary
When things are ideal the adventure starts with a summary for the GM where you get an overview of what the adventure is about. Reading the summary should be sufficient to understand the plot. But I’ve seen more than enough adventures that either don’t have a summary at all or the summary is missing important information. In an ideal world the GM always reads the whole adventure thoroughly before running it. But we’re not living in an ideal world and sometimes you just didn’t have the time to properly prepare. Isn’t that one of the reasons why we bought the adventure module in the first place?

Bad organization
Even a missing GM summary isn’t that bad when the adventure is organized well and it’s easy to find the information you need. But I’ve read quite a few adventure modules that totally lacked organizations. Running the game involved flipping through the adventure all the time while I tried to find out the stats of an important NPC or where the next room is described in detail. There are two concepts that usually work very well. Either you try to place important stats, optional rules, designer notes etc. close to where they are needed, or you compile all information at the end of the book. Mixing the two concepts is fine, as long as there’s some internal consistency. It’s no fun wondering where to find the information you need right now.

No or bad research
This can be an issue especially with historic, modern or near future games. I remember a couple of adventures I ran, that had major design flaws. There was one Shadowrun adventure (I think it had been published in a magazine) that made absolutely no sense. The whole plot was centered around around a nuclear power plant which has gone into meltdown a couple of year ago. The adventure mixed action and horror and sounded pretty good, but alas the authors didn’t do their homework. Everything concerning the nuclear power plant was pretty much wrong and my players mainly consisted of physics students. Something similar happened in several badly researched Call of Cthulhu adventures were the authors made a lot of errors regarding historic events and geography. Fixing these things usually costs a lot of time and effort. In some cases things are so broken that the whole premise of the adventure doesn’t work anymore after you’ve fixed the inaccuracies. In a lot of games you can easily get away with some minor inconsistencies, but when things get too bad, the sense of disbelief goes totally out of the window. So, please, dear adventure authors, do your homework and put some effort into research!

Railroading to the extreme
Your mileage may vary, but I can live with some railroading. But what I don’t like is when railroading is turned to eleven. I remember adventures that basically consisted of a string of scenes and the player characters were forced to go from scene to scene in a predetermined path. In another adventure module a lot of detective work on the part of the player characters was necessary in order to get all the clues, but the adventure did everything it could to prevent them from searching for clues. After a while I got the impression that the author actually wanted to write a movie script. Extreme railroading is not only getting old pretty quickly, it also messes with the players’ sense of disbelief. You just can’t immerse yourself in the game world, when you feel like some invisible strings drag you along.

These are the four deadly sins of adventure design, but there are a couple of minor quibbles that crop up from time to time. Some adventures only allow you to play one of several pre-generated characters. This is not a big deal for one-shots, but if you want to run a longer campaign, it’s a no-go. I also encountered a couple of adventures that claim compatibility with a certain system, but then lists skills, stats, etc. which don’t exist in the system mentioned. This can usually be fixed pretty quickly, but it’s definitely annoying. There are more things that could go wrong with published adventures, but I think the things I mentioned today should suffice for now. There are of course a lot of great adventure modules out there that avoid a lot of these pitfalls.

What do you think about published adventures? What annoys you most? What do you like? Or do you usually write your own adventures? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

Michael Wolf is a German games designer and enthusiast best known for his English language role-playing games blog, Stargazer's World, and for creating the free rules-light medieval fantasy adventure game Warrior, Rogue & Mage. He has also worked as an English translator on the German-language Dungeonslayers role-playing game and was part of its editorial team. In addition to his work on Warrior, Rogue & Mage and Dungeonslayers, he has created several self-published games and also performed layout services and published other independent role-playing games such as A Wanderer's Romance, Badass, and the Wyrm System derivative Resolute, Adventurer & Genius, all released through his imprint Stargazer Games. Professionally, he works as a video technician and information technologies specialist. Stargazer's World was started by Michael in August 2008.

4 thoughts on “What could go wrong with published adventure modules? A lot!”

  1. oh i totally agree with this. i never really run pre written game and defiantly not at a Con even. But this year i break my rule. i have two pre written games by friends from twitter @theangrydm and @DMSamuel bothe were happy to take part. but now i feel can i pull it off. only time will tell. 4 days to go

  2. I almost always use my own, unless I’m trying out a system for the first time, as I did with Only War. I’m currently trying to get my head around adventure writing though, so this has been a very useful post for me. While I would obviously say that of course i haven’t committed any of those sins, I think that if I was to go back and rework some of my ideas, it would be nice to do so with this list in mind.

    There are still some good published adventures out there, but it’s very rare that I find one that actually makes it easier to run a game, hence me arguing against relying too heavily on them. http://shortymonster.co.uk/?p=97

  3. I just got back into gaming last year after a 20+ year hiatus. I’m making significant use of purchased modules to get going again in this bi-weekly game I’m GM’ing. I’m also using them to save myself a little bit of time. Lastly, I’m using them to come up with scenario ideas.

    I actually really like purchased adventure modules but only when I do a lot of work on them. So the way I’m using them, they’re not saving me LOTS of time…just a little. I’m finding they’re facilitating the storyline in directions I probably would not have – which I like…call it the unpredictability of real life, if you will.

  4. Early in the d20 era (around 2001-ish) some companies were putting out short pamphlet adventures (10-20 pages, on 3″ x 8″ pamphlet size pages)… that worked really well for dropping them into an existing campaign as a “I don’t have something else this week” or “I need a short interlude”. I adapted a few of those to my campaign at the time. They were short enough to read everything thoroughly, in a short period of time. They typically had a good theme to them. They were inexpensive. And because there was so little to them, you usually didn’t have to do much to make them fit into some bigger picture (a short notepad page).

    Harder to do that in the PDF era though. Instead, you get $2 PDFs that are of varying quality on DriveThru. Low cost, so low risk of a bad purchase… but the quality of organization and writing varies by quite a bit.

    (as for the sins you put forward, I agree entirely. I’ve been _mostly_ happy with Goodman Games / Dungeon Crawl Classics for some basic dungeon crawl though).

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