Dungeons and Dragons is a truly free and unlimited past time of a hobby. It encourages storytelling, imagination and teaches interesting subjects to aspiring DMs such as the basics of world-building and even game mechanics and game designing tricks. However, for DMs, D&D also represents a herculean task of impossible measure: creating your own setting and adventure from scratch. For those creative members of our community overflowing with an abundance of world design ideas and epic long-scale plots, these overwhelming endeavours might well be an outlet for them, an enjoyed hobby to be refined and developed upon. For the past month, I’ve been doing just that: enjoying re-designing a setting of my own creation, whilst simultaneously juggling plotting a possible campaign for that world and ideas for my ongoing endeavours with the Dorvine campaign (which will hopefully be continued soon). However, not everyone enjoys world-building or, more importantly, not everyone has the time to world-build to such an extent. Some people just want to get together and run D&D with no real strings attached. For moments such as this, there exists prepacked scenarios created by veteran Dungeon and Dragons writers that DMs can run straight out of the book and players can leap straight into. These brilliant little booklets are called adventure modules.
Welcome back to From the DM’s Chair, I’m Shadowonthewall and for our first post of the new year, we’ll be taking a break from the chronicling of Dorvine and focusing upon an underappreciated aspect of DMing from this blog, running an adventure module. This week, we’ll be talking about adventure modules in general, tips and tricks for the basics of running these modules and a few suggestions of which ones might best fit what new DMs might be looking for content wise.
The adventure module: campaign in a box.
Back in the starting years of D&D, adventure modules were known as dungeon modules, mainly because back in the original running of D&D there was really only the dungeon available. Overland travel and the spiralling complex plots we now apply to these games didn’t exist. Instead, there was only the dungeon and the adventure lurking inside. The first dungeon module released was the year after Dungeons and Dragons came out as part of the Blackmoor supplement with the first standalone module being released the following year. Since these days, the idea of a module hasn’t changed, even though the game has. These prepacked dungeons and adventures contain detailed maps, NPC files and pretty much everything a DM might need to run a game in a pre-established world. Originally, adventure modules used to come as a variety of mini-handouts containing sections of adventures, such as campaigns running from level 4-7 that then continued from level 8-12 in a different supplement. I never got to use any of these modules myself but always felt a deep affinity for them, perhaps because of my main criticism with dungeon modules.
I inherently dislike the concept of adventure modules because of the very limitations of the medium. Creating a sandbox game for a video game is easy because the designer can ensure players can’t do certain actions like, say, kill the quest-giver and his wife, steal their house, their gold and their dog and go adventuring in the distance. In Dungeons and Dragons, narrative agency is more powerful and prevalent than in any other game series and pre-packaged adventure modules usually fail to capture my interest, despite their unique concepts, because their execution is often marred with rail-roaded plots with limited choices, a flaw that cuts to its most basic components for me. Some modules managed to pass this, such as Curse of Strahd or really any Ravenloft module, by playing to the strengths and producing artificial limiters to enhance the experience.
For the past few months, however, I’ve been more and more willing to give adventure modules to try and have glimpsed the true strengths of what these modules truly have and why they’re so useful, especially for new DMs just starting out.
To cut to the chase, adventure modules cut out a lot of the strain of coming up with a D&D adventure yourself. The plot is already written, NPCs already created and villains fun and plentiful added into the mix, saving a lot of work for the inexperienced DM. What it lacks in freedom, it more than makes up for in developed focus of core concepts and free fun objectives which can span the length and breadth of the lore within D&D.
The main strength of an adventure module is the firm base it creates for a campaign with its main weakness for me being a direct result of this: the adventures are made to be generic to appeal to any player and there’s a severe lack of depth or personal involvement to explore. However, it doesn’t always have to be this way. At least, such was what I learned when I decided to dip my toe in and try running an adventure module.
Tricks of the trade: running adventure modules.
Personally, I found the entire process of running an adventure module far more refreshing and enjoyable when I realised that the guideline nature of D&D’s rules also apply to constructing its modules. Despite the detailed railroaded path of the story, adventure modules are just as prone to customisation as the core rules and mechanics. The most important step of running any of these modules is what changes you’re going to make to the story and what changes are you going to make to the world. For all of my Faerun based campaigns, I put my own original stamp on the setting in the form of a guild called The Neverwinter Knights. Created by Dagult Neverember, the group stood as a symbol of changing times, a way for player characters to easily meet and engage with the adventure thread in a convincing manner but also a central tension for the story, symbolising a changing ecology and philosophy around adventuring and asking questions about what truly makes an adventurer what they are and how ideas can be easily corrupted by higher political powers. It’s a great story angle to explore and has created a lot of interesting story developments within my current campaigns.
When running an adventure module, little changes like this to flesh out in the world in your own vision, or even changing the story to build on a character’s dramatic revelation and explore your own version of a character should be encouraged. By taking the source material and breathing your own life into it, you can tell different stories, engage different players and explore whole new possibilities that might not have been possible in a homebrew D&D campaign. You can make Gothic settings, but no Gothic campaign will ever have as much appeal as the iconic realm of Barovia and its un-dead lord, because of how famous it is and how much time has been given to it to be refined into something better. Even still, every trip through Barvoia will be unique and epic battles between Strahd will always play out differently depending on the DM and interpreter.
Customising Adventure Modules.
So, the main question with running a module becomes: where to start? Which adventure would be best to start with and which aspects of it would be best adapted, changed or fixed? It’s hard to give a solid answer for the second question, as a DM we all have to make our own calls about adventures and different things will stick out for different reasons. In my campaigns, I try to develop the narrative aspects of the game, so I tend to flesh out NPC plotlines and develop upon the story in ways to include my players, such as putting more emphasis into their backstories and working them into current events if possible.
As for which adventure modules to pick, my own personal recommendations are fairly limited. As of this blog, there have been eleven adventure modules published by Wizards of the Coast, nine of which are in physical copies and I’ve only personally read five of them, but I have read enough and have had enough research experience with the modules to hopefully give some good advice and recommendations for aspiring DMs and the type of adventures you should look for.
Off the top of my head, Curse of Strahd and Tomb of Annihilation would be my first recommendations for any DM. Both feature a fantastic mix of what makes adventure modules compelling: pre-realised adventures with interesting characters and each module has an excellent pitch of a story to go with their setting, funnelling the players towards their main goal but never restricting them of their freedom. For those of the more Gothic persuasion, Strahd is always the way to go and stands as my all-time favourite adventure module due to its amazing villain and incredible atmosphere. Tomb is far more grounded in generic fantasy adventure in its pitch but the interesting set-up of the campaign, a Lich bringing about a ‘death curse’ makes it compelling as a either a dark gritty quest into wild jungles or a fun romp of excitement on an island with dinosaurs.
Waterdeep: Dragonheist gets my recommendation third, being a nice low-level adventure that encourages player agency but also expects the DM to fully learn and utilise the city of Waterdeep to its fullest in a campaign focused more around RPG and clever tactics than run and gun style combat. Speaking of combat, the great features and set-pieces of Dragonheist are amplified in the sequel module, Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage, a fun dungeon crawl through D&D history, balancing epic combat with monster politics. Less heavy on the RP than the first three, Dungeon of the Mad Mage presents a nice segway into more dungeon focused modules. For those DMs who aren’t as concerned with the trimmings of a narrative as myself, these dungeon crawl modules are just what the doctor ordered and though Dungeon of the Mad Mage reaches levels of epic intensity, I’d recommend Tales from the Yawning Portal over it. A set of isolated dungeons from past D&D modules including the truly iconic (and deadly) Tomb of Horrors, Yawning Portal is much more focused on the combat and the plots can be more of a footnote here, above the varying politics and spectacle of the Mad Mage.
Princes of the Apocalypse and Out of the Abyss are modules I have very little knowledge on, though out of the two, Out of the Abyss deals with heavy under-dark monsters and politics and demonic threats, whilst Princes of the Apocalypse focuses on more elemental threats. The two are placed in the middle of Wizards foray into 5e, so their quality is probably at least better than The Tyranny of Dragons storyline. Split into two books, that of Hoard of the Dragon Queen and Rise of Tiamat, I have heard only negative things about the modules. Whilst they’re still no doubt enjoyable, they represent the worst that D&D adventure structure can offer: a long-winded story with long fragments of railroaded travelling with very little interest. It’s understandable, it was Wizards of the Coasts first attempt at new adventures with the edition, but I can easily recommend any of the later modules over these, whether you love combat or RP.
That means that the only published module I haven’t discussed in great detail is Storm King’s Thunder. The reason for that is that I’ve been running Storm King’s Thunder for the past few months and for the next few blogs, I want to take a chance to talk about my experiences with it in greater detail, explain my own creative process with adapting it for the table and the various misadventures that have happened along the way. This segment will be replacing Dorvine for the considerable future giving myself and my lovely artist Dion Russell (whose work you can find at https://www.deviantart.com/floodrushforever) a chance for an extended break to work on delivering as solid a retrospective as possible.
That’s going to be it from this instalment of From the DM’s Chair, but join me next week as I’m going to take a deep dive into Storm King’s Thunder and all the tricks and tips I learned whilst running it for my friends. I’d also love to get some feedback from others. What’s your favourite module? For what edition? Have you actually run and enjoyed the Tyranny of Dragon story-line? Please let me know, I’d love to hear another viewpoint.
Until next time, thank you everyone for reading and I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief discussion of adventure modules for 5E From the DM’s Chair. Please leave a comment. Constructive criticism is welcome.