By - June 4, 2008 - 29 Comments

Why you should never use pre-made adventures as your main storyline

Published adventures are great, but…

I’m reading Keep on the Shadowfell, the first 4E adventure module and I’m enjoying it thoroughly. Very well done – plenty of plot hooks, maps, and great scenes. I will definitely use it in my campaign.

But I won’t use it as the main plot. Why? Because it’s potentially holding back my campaign! Using a published adventure as your main story line is bad time management, and bad energy management.

Time management

Will you remember everything you read about the adventure. No. Reading is proven to be an inneficient way to memorize and learn. Doing, creating, and writing are better ways to study and remember important elements of the adventure. If you’re going to write, take notes, and tweak a module, wouldn’t it be better to just create one? Creating your own maps and scenes can be just as fast as reading and studying them.

Besides, your time investment will be reduced if you read an adventure knowing it will be a side quest. You can read it quickly, get an overview of the whole module, target the scenes that best fit your campaign, and work on them.

Energy management

I easily get excited about creating an adventure and anticipating my players’ reactions. Will I get as excited about someone else’s adventure? Probably not. Invest your energy making something custom-made for your players and their character. It is much easier, and more rewarding, than modifying something generic.

It is possible for Dungeon Masters to quickly create a great campaign, and using a published adventure as a side quest allows you to add flavor and realism to the setting without much effort.

Published adventures for new DMs

If you’re new at DMing a published adventure might be perfect for you because you do not have any campaign creation experience. So take my advice with that perspective.

Campaign settings

Campaign settings like Ptolus and Forgotten Realms are great too but I would advise on targeting sections of the book and study the setting over time. Reading a whole campaign guide can be mind-numbing.

What do you think?

Do you use pre-made adventures as your main storyline? How much tweaking do you do? What do you think are the pros and cons of using them? Will you use Keep on the Shadowfell for your first 4e game?

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  1. Sara no H. says:

    I rely pretty much exclusively on published adventures – both because I am a brand-spanking-new DM and because as much as I like to write, I’m quite lazy :p The idea of spending two weeks or better writing a massive involved campaign that my friends will just quote Monty Python at doesn’t appeal to me that much. And since I’m one of those rare people who actually do learn pretty much straight from books, I don’t usually have trouble keeping most of the adventure in my head while we’re playing.

    If anything, I tend to make the NPCs my own – not necessarily changing their stats or anything, but I try to give them all personality quirks that make them memorable. And of course, the way they interact with the PCs … largely depends on the PCs. I’ve begun adding in my own NPCs who may eventually become major players in a homebrewed campaign, but that’s about the most tweaking I do.

    As far as our first 4e game goes … nah, we’re still in Sigil. I’m letting them all reroll characters at their current level (4th by 4e’s XP-per-level chart), but they’re not escaping the Cage til the DM’s bored of it ^_^

  2. Joey says:

    As a DM I normally make my own adventures. However sometimes I see some cool premade advetures that I have wanted to incorporate in my campaign some how. When I played second edition many years ago we spent a lot of time in Ravenloft. For that we normally used published adventures because, let’s face it, they really were awsome adventures. Unfortunetly 2e Ravenloft adventures were not good for begginer DMs which I learned the hard way.

    When I started the current campaign that we are on I went looking through some pre-made adventures looking for some inspiration. Well in the course of reading I found three adventures I liked and instead of just using them for inspiration I added them to the campaign. All three were low level adventures for players up to level 4 and so they were all used early on and two of them became semi-important because the PCs started to make a name for themselves. They were also good because I had several new players and these adventures gave them a chance to try out different abilities and options without their characters being in too much danger.

    As a general rule I agree with you that using published adventures, although may be good, tend to be a waste for most GMs. You have to read them, then modify them to fit your campaign, then modify them again to ensure the difficuly is set just right (or as close as you can get) to match your players’ level, then read it again. You then still need to be prepared enough to improvise on the spot, which is something you have to do with homebrews as well, but are much harder because you didn’t create it.

    Now if you see an adventure you like there is no reason you can’t incorporate it into your campaign, but don’t make it a major part of the campaign, make it a side quest. For example. Your PCs have to travel several weeks through areas they aren’t too familiar, if familiar with at all, to drop off a message from their home city to another major city and on there way they happen to find the Sunless Citradell. If they go in, cool, if not not or they leave before finishing it it is not a big deal since even though it is a pretty good adventure it is not a major part of the campaign so it doesn’t effect you too much as a GM if they complete it or not.

    For new GMs running one, two or more published adventures is probably a good idea. Being a GM isn’t easy and even if you know the rules and mechanics forward and backwards using them from a GMs perspective is many times a little different in practice then from being a player; as well as all the other work a GM has to do in creating a homebrew adventure

    I probably won’t be running any 4e adventures for at least 6 months to a year because at the moment I have no job, no money and have many bills to pay.

  3. Josh says:

    I have been DMing for almost 11 years and I have never run a published adventure. I agree largely with all of the points made in this article. It is very different to do an NPC justice if you have not made him yourself. And with the amount of tweaking it would take to make an entire published adventure my own it is simpler to just make the adventure myself.

  4. Will says:

    I really disagree on this one.

    I’ve regularly run both published campaigns as an integral part of a storyline, and have run my own. To be honest I love a good published campaign. I’m running my party through EN Publishing’s War of the Burning Sky at the moment, and it’s fantastic. I’m adding on my own other quests and things as an aside, but the main thrust of the storyline is there. When bite comes to crunch if I’m going to be runnning a good story within my campaign arc, I find it much easier to run a published campaign.

    Giving an NPC character is important of course, but I’m quite happy to do that and let the rest of the work be done by someone else. War of the Burning Sky, and The Shackled City for example are all excellent campaign arcs and I find save a huge amount of preperation work on the campaign

  5. Tommi says:

    Designing adventures is too much work, I don’t do it. Using published adventures is not worth it, as they are not personal to the player characters and because they take a lot of effort to internalise.

    So, I improvise a lot. Works for me.

  6. Mike says:

    I got to say i don’t have much time anymore and pre-made adventures are great. i can read a couple of pages and the pc’s usually never exceed what i read. Also the smaller adventures are great for when everyone just shows up and wants to play d&d for one night only.

    When i run my own adventures they tend to be based on pre-mades anyway. Why turn down a creative source.

  7. Alphadean says:

    As gamer for more than 30 years and as a DM of about 30 years I will tell that I’m huge supporter of making your own adventures. Pre-made adventures were always used as smaller parts of a whole. I don’t even you use campaign settings as the whole of my world. In my old 3.5 campaign there were elements, names, and characters from 5 or 6 different settings which helped me flesh out my world. In my world their was a huge port city called Waterdeep, funny my players learned qutie quickly that this wasn’t the city they thought they knew…it turned out that this Waterdeep was a the hot bed of corruption…pirates ran the docks..theives guild ran the city and had an going war with the assassin guild. Not mention a major bad ass EVIL wizard had set up shop as the mayor. So for me pre-made adventures are nothing more than fodder for me to add to my world. My 4E world is coming together nicely and I’ll unleash the dragon on my un-suspecting group in about 2 months.

  8. fishercatt says:

    I don’t run published adventures. They take just as much work as making my own (I start out vague and build the world around what the players seem in to) and as soon as I started to go off from what the plan is I found myself making up more and more stuff anyway. My personality is duller than a soft balloon, so I just get my ideas from the internet anyway. Lately I’ve been starting with roleplayingtips.com’s five room dungeons and building it up from there. You know, start the show with a bang and make it up as I go along. I guess I’m too lazy to use a published adventure.

  9. Bob says:

    As a DM of over 30 years, and as an older player, I rely heavily on published materials. Yes, I do tweak them heavily (and make stuff up on the fly if I don’t remember the exact details, so I don’t waste time looking stuff up in the module), but having maps and NPC’s ready-to-go is a huge time saver for me. This is important, because as a family man I have precious little time for drawing maps and creating NPC’s from scratch.

    One thing I’ve been doing in a current campaign is using some of the WotC’s free adventures, listed in the menu on this website, and stringing them together into a storyline, linking them together with certain details (like reoccuring NPCs and bad guys, and having them run into bad guys all wearing the same strange armband in each “module”), making an underlying and overarching plot out of a bunch of, at first, seemingly separate locations and events. All this will lead them to some ultimate climax of the storyline, and the force behind the entire string of events. To do this, of course, I have changed many details – for example, instead of an orc cleric, it’s a bugbear cleric (wearing the aforementioned mysterious armband…) – but even so I have saved much time and energy using the basic locations and plotlines of the published modules.

  10. Mat says:

    I used to run WEG Star Wars years ago. When I did, I created my own campaign, but some of the NPCs, ships, side quests/plots were taken from other pre-generated games. I’d flesh out the NPCs that I used and those that were more popular became regulars. There are binders of NPCS and backgrounds just sitting on my bookshelf. Some of these characters I created, some were “stolen” from pre-generated – but the fleshed out backgrounds were me (a page minimum).

    I found that the “mini-pregenerated campaigns” were great for the unexpected when someone in the party decides to do something completely unexpected. I have a few of the WEG post-it noted with notes on settings, so if they are in a city, I can easily flip to one and see if it fits the bill real quick – maybe take a bathroom/drink refill break for the party.

    Of course, the greatest DnD adventure I’ve ever played in was created by the GM, but the setting and some NPCs were stolen from Diablo II (and Diablo I). It was less hack and slash and more storyline (and this was BEFORE the Diablo II setting for DND came out).

  11. Earl says:

    I personally only favor using the small side hook published adventures. In 15 years of DMing I have never run a published adventure. The small side hooks are great to work into a larger self created storyline and usually only require minor tweaking.

  12. James McMurray says:

    I use premade adventures whenever possible, although nothing ever survives contact with my imagination. I change things heavily, and masage them to fit my group’s personality and playstyle. However, one of the best campaigns I ever ran involved almost nothing but pregenerated adventures pulled from the web, WotC, and prior editions. I strung them together where possible, and created new stuff whenever the PCs ran farther off the beaten path than I’d anticipated.

    My most recent campaign (Scion, not D&D) has been about 85% my own creation. I used a pair of novels by Neil Gaiman for inspiration, but Scion has no published adventures that fit the theme, and converting from another system would be more work than creating something from scratch.

  13. Michelle says:

    ill use premade adventures as inspiration and then use just a few ideas from it when i make my own. sometimes ill also use a mix from the premade and then throw in elements from old fantasy literature if i cant think of anything super interesting on my own (damn you writers block!)

    overall i have to say that pregenerated adventures are useful and if you wanna exclusively use them thats great, but i agree with many that they do inhibit some of the more creative aspects of your campaign.

  14. ScottM says:

    I’m not good about using modules and premade adventures, but I’d like to be better about at least mining them effectively. I don’t have many modules (other than too many Dungeon issues), and often read through them once for ideas and set them aside. I like the idea of using them as premade sidequests… sounds like a good compromise to me.

  15. Yax says:

    I’m glad to see that not everyone agrees with me. I might need to do a follow up article on this. There’s definitely different ideas and different ways to go about using published adventures.

  16. Kane says:

    I picked up this module, and plan to run it as a one-off, introduction into 4e, then we will make new characters and start in my world. I want the players to get a feel for what has changed, and play it in a way it was intended, before we house rule it and such. I am guilty of buying modules and then just picking the stuff out of them that I like, and putting the rest on a bookcase, but its all good to me :)

  17. I use prefab whenever I can – I’ve never used published modules as the -basis- for a campaign, but I’ve always used them to support whatever storyline I’ve come up with.

    My current campaign began with a couple of Planescape modules; although I had to convert all the 2nd Edition stuff to v.3.5, I didn’t have to waste time making maps or coming up with anything else. The material was easy to incorporate into my campaign plot, and I got a nice base of recurring NPCs and locations to add to the stuff I’d come up with on my own.

    The storyline has moved on into original territory, but I still pull pregen NPCs from modules & sourcebooks to save myself the strain of “heavy lifting.”

  18. I never, ever run pre-made adventures. I did do so when I first started DMing as a pre-teen but after a few adventures, I figured I was already straying away from the plots so much that it was more work than starting from scratch.

    I also never run campaign settings. I used to run a hacked Forgotten Realms campaign because two players begged for it but I’ve since decided to hold my ground.

    I used to shake my head in disbelief at people who use pre-made adventures and setting material but I realize now that it’s snobbish behavior. I guess not everyone has the time or inclination to make this stuff and that’s fine.

    But I would personally feel robbed of a good part of my fun as a DM if I did not create worlds, characters, conflicts and plots myself. I find it to be great fun and further, I think it’s less work than actually reading pre-made stuff. Like Tommi above, I may also improvise and make up stuff once in a while. I find that because I know my setting and what I am actually trying to accomplish with the various plots, it gives me a comfort zone to drop things or go in new directions.

    But to me, the greatest advantage of making your own plots is that they will catter to your players and be character-driven. You can satisfy your players and you can feed off of their characters’ aspirations and background. And that is a very powerful tool for a coherent and exciting campaign with great story arcs.

  19. Sara no H. says:

    the greatest advantage of making your own plots is that they will catter to your players and be character-driven. You can satisfy your players and you can feed off of their characters’ aspirations and background.

    True, but that only works if they stay alive long enough to make it worthwhile to design an entire campaign around their character arcs. My players tend toward altaholism, and on top of that, none of them particularly takes the game seriously enough to have clearly-defined motivations for their characters, much less far-reaching goals or experiences that could eventually develop into campaign material. The one fella who had all that is now absolutely disgusted with his character and cannot wait to reroll when we get together this weekend. *shrug*

  20. Lee says:

    I used to write my own, but as a grown-up with little spare time, I find myself leaning on pre-made a lot. My last game was developed by reading a big stack of Dungeon mags, picking out some mods I liked that seemed to have common elements, and stringing them together. Once play began, the party’s directions deviated from my “plan,” of course, but I could deal with that. I ended up with 8 or 10 that I used, 2-3 I almost used, and 20+ that I liked, but didn’t fit. I have 3 half-formed ideas to use those remaining ones, someday down the road.
    For campaign settings, I like these, as a) (again) I no longer have time to make a whole world, and b) I can show players pictures and maps.
    Yes, I do modify the modules and settings to my taste, but I find I’m more comfortable (and thus more effective) at mashing someone else’s creative work than coming up with my own. I guess I don’t have a Spark, but I do have the mental kindling to make a spark into a flame.

  21. Doug says:

    I’ve consistently been blown away by what Paizo is doing with the Pathfinder adventure series they’re putting out each month. Its some of the best-quality and most-interesting pre-published stuff I’ve ever seen, and I haven’t wanted to use pre-published stuff since I was about 13.

    For Free RPG Day at the FLGS I’ll be running an adventure from Paizo/Pathfinder called Revenge of the Kobold King. It is excellent, and written in such a way as to be adaptible.

    I can’t vouch for how these things turn out as your main plotline, but we do have two customers who are both running the Pathfinder series with their group and they are loving. I tell everyone that its worth at least looking at, particularly as a person whose raw free time which can be allocated to creating my own adventures is dwindling as time goes on.

  22. Sean says:

    Long ago, when I first started DMing, I pretty much ran only published adventures. To be honest I think its the best way to go for a new DM because when everything is new to you, you can use all the help you can get.

    Over time I ran fewer and fewer published adventures till I reached a point where everything I did was completely my own. Just like you describe, it was faster, simpler and just plain better to do it myself. I think without a doubt the best adventures I ever ran were the ones I made up myself during those years, but then something changed…

    I fell out of touch with the players I had know, and while I had some chances to be a player, I was never in a position to be a DM for a period of about five years. When the chance arrived to DM again, I found that spark had gone; I literally have no ideas for adventures, and ideas that are handed to me on a platter I have no ideas as to how to expand them. Now everything is a struggle, and so published adventures have become my crutch. While you are quite correct that I spend much longer now preparing an adventure with much poorer results, with my brain not co-operating my only real options are use published material or not DM at all.

    Part of me completely agrees with you, because I truely believe that the way you describe for creating adventure is second to none, but another part of me can’t help but think your article and its tone are akin to kicking people when they’re down. No one wants to spend money buying published adventure and time learning other people’s material. Every DM who buys adventures does so because making his own adventures is not a viable alternative for him.

    And to answer your questions, I have bought Shadowfell and the only way I won’t be using it is if one of my players has already played through it.

  23. Dan says:

    I agree w/ focusing on a single section in big worlds (like FR), and having the few other cool sections in the back of your mind.

    I often do this even in my own worlds: I focus on a specific section (ex: the Bloodstone Lands from FR), but I might have some thoughts about another area in the back of my head (ex: the Waterdhavian merchant).

  24. Wayne says:

    I find my biggest problem with pre-written campaigns is that they have nothing to do with the PCs. It’s a series of events that sort of happens at the PCs. When I start a campaign, I give my players a basic outline of events so far and then I work with them to produce a backstory for their characters. I then take elements from that back story to construct the main plot. That way the adventure is all about them. So far it’s worked quite well.
    Pre-written adventures, on the other hand can be a nice way of dropping in a side quest if you haven’t had time to prepare that week :)

  25. Robin says:

    I think that pre-made quests are a very good way of learning the game. When I first started out as a DM I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. But then I started to look at pre-made quests and I got to learn hor everything works for a DM. It is kind of a cop out when you use them but I think that they are an absolute amazing learning supplement.

  26. Wilmer Claessens says:

    Premade Campaigns can be a good solution.
    For example,

    Last time I played D&D, I spend 12 hours on making a perfect night, everything I made was right. But my friends weren’t in the mood apperently and ruined the evening for me. I had wasted 12 hours of my time and had a bad feeling about it. I did use some parts from premade campaigns sometimes. But now I’m planning on doing a whole campaign without spending to much time in it. According to Dungeon Masters Guide 1 you will only have to spend 1 hour for preperations each time you play D&D with a premade campaign. Two if you want to be prepared for a fast gaming group. I don’t mind spending two hours for a evening that doesn’t go as I would expect. But I do hate it when it aren’t 2 hours, but 12. So I think that premade campaigns can be a great solution for DM’s with the same problems like I have occasionally.

  27. nosreme says:

    I have to strongly disagree with nearly every one of your points. I’ve been playing RPGs since 1977 and running since 1980 and I’m a writer as well. And yet, more than half the time I use a premade, though none of them remain unchanged by me. The thing is, writing your own adventure takes a lot more time and energy than using a premade. Your argument that it takes just as much energy as using a premade is very false. You dont need to memorize the entire adventure. You only need to familiarize yourself with it and stay one chapter ahead of the players. Most of my own adventures are months and even years old (decades even). You think I memorize everything I’ve written? Heck no. I do the same thing with my own work. Stay a chapter ahead. Also suggesting that your own work is somehow better than published work is a tad presumptuous. Of course, if you thought Shadowfell was good that might explain it. Not that aren’t a lot of bad published adventures. There are a ton. But there are also gems like Ravenloft that come to mind that blow me away. Many of the Pathfinder adventures are really good. And sorry for the rant but this subject really gets my goat. I hear so often of people looking down at DMs that use published material. It needs to stop and articles like this only promote that point of view.

    Thank you. End rant.

  1. [... Published adventures are great, but... I'm reading Keep on the Shadowfell, the first 4E adventure module and I'm enjoying it thoroughly. Very well done - plenty of plot hooks, maps, ...]

  2. [... Published adventures are great, but... I'm reading Keep on the Shadowfell, the first 4E adventure module and I'm enjoying it thoroughly. Very well done - plenty of plot hooks, maps, ...]

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