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D&D General "A Special Warning Regarding the Deadliness of this Module" (or Adventure Design Philosophy)

el-remmen

Moderator Emeritus
So I was prepping an old 1E module for use in my 5e campaign. As far as I'm concerned 1E modules and Dungeon of the 1E/2E era are still the best adventures for D&D ever made - but with the caveat that the only 5E modules I've run are ones that were converted from 1E and other editions in Ghosts of Saltmarsh and I never played or read any 4E modules (I was so turned off by 2E and 3E pre-packaged modules I just never looked beyond them). Anyway, I found this note early on in the module I was prepping:

Epo_K3-WMAAn9Dm.jpg

The warning made me laugh because it was so indicative of an old playstyle and because I could not imagine my players asking to play a different character for an adventure b/c they were afraid of their character dying (even if I would allow such a switch- which I probably wouldn't). I did send them the above screenshot to get them a little nervous though! 🤣

It did make me wonder about people's design philosophy when it comes to choosing, adapting, or writing adventures for their home games. Personally what I like about 1E modules is that they tend to be big and sandbox-y providing me a framework for establishing my own stakes and making the elements fit in my own setting. I honestly don't think I've ever run an adventure as written - so I guess one of the qualities I look for is adaptability.

What I love about Dungeon magazine adventures (esp. of the early to mid-90s) are the wonderfully inventive sites they provide, the interesting and detailed NPCs, the non-standard plots a lot of them have (ironically, for a while Dungeon magazine seemed to eschew actual dungeons), and the differences in style and tone among them (including a lot of "dark fairytale" feel adventures, which I really like). When it comes to Dungeon I am the master at cutting and pasting elements from different adventures together.

So what is your take on making use of pre-written adventures or for writing (re-writing) your own? What is your take on determining difficulty and for purposefully designing adventures that challenge in the way the warning above suggests? I know there is vocal presence of people on these boards who find 5E D&D not deadly or tactical enough (I disagree wholeheartedly, but 🤷‍♂️) or that the CR system is broken (I don't have an opinion since I barely look at CR), so my guess is there will be people commenting to say that 5E can't be made to foster that feeling of fear, but that's fine. If your philosophy is just not run 5E or change it dramatically, just tell us about how you do make use of adventure material to foster the game you like. (This thread is not limited to 5E as the tag suggests).

Oh and if anyone is curious, I don't think the adventure this warning is from is REALLY all that dangerous. . . but I need to finish reading it through and begin the actual conversion.

If I had to boil it down to a one sentence philosophy: I like modules with a capacious plot that provide a site for non-linear engagement with interesting NPCs and more straightforward set-pieces to explore and/or have interesting battles using the environment.
 

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My tastes run to the sandboxy (see Raiders of Oakhurst Reloaded for something that reflects my adventure design philosophy).

Players should have meaningful choices (or at least the illusion thereof) with multiple paths to follow, multiple places to go, and multiple ways to resolve encounters. They should have the option to get in over their heads if they proceed in a foolhardy fashion too -- because with choice comes consequence.

I like using pre-written adventures; I may not use the whole thing, but the set pieces are easy to combine in other ways and take away some of the tedium of building and stocking encounters.
 
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el-remmen

Moderator Emeritus
Players should have meaningful choices (or at least the illusion thereof) with multiple paths to follow, multiple places to go, and multiple ways to resolve encounters. They should have the option to get in over their heads if they proceed in a foolhardy fashion to -- because with choice comes consequence.
Yeah, this is what I mean by "engage non-linearly." The PCs can choose where to go, which order to go to things, ignore stuff, that is all up to them. Some individual sites/encounters may be linear in style, but how and if the PCs get there and what they make of it, is up to them.
 


I prefer to write my own sandbox campaign, because I enjoy worldbuilding, and allowing my players to explore. Encounters are usually worked out right before a session, and I always make them level appropriate. However, depending on the level and strength of the party, I may scale them up a bit above what is appropriate according to the core rules.

At low levels, I design battles to be diverse, but not lethal. At mid and high level however, I design fights so a pc might die. I want there to always be a threat of death. A big encounter should atleast put a dent in the party, and require some healing. Otherwise there is simply no suspense.
 

jgsugden

Legend
My typical campaign is:

  • Levels 1 to 4: Railroad. You've got limited options on where to go and what to do as a result of a ticking clock. The pressure the PCs are under is part of what turns them into heroes.
  • Levels 5 to 12: Sandbox on the Prime, Feywild, and Shadowplane with limited excursions to other planes.
  • Levels 13 to 18: Sandbox amongst the planes. The Heroes spend more time on other planes than they do on the mortal plane.
  • Level 19 and 20: Railroad. The big storyline that has been hinted at all through the campaign comes to a head and a triggering event changes everything and puts them back on a clock to save the world.

Usually, the heroes end up someplace new when they get to level 5, and if they choose to go back to the place where they were at levels 1 to 4, it is a changed place. They'll be flooded with story hooks around this time which will include will include: a.) Storylines growing out of their backstory and origin. b.) Storylines I've set up that grow out of the machinations of NPCs they have met (or will meet), c.) Three major storylines - One that will culminate around level 20, One that will culminate around level 16, and one that will culminate around level 10 (if things go as planned which they rarely do).

The a.) Storylines are me building out the adventure that they set up in their backstory. I try to figure out what will be best for the player and give that my own spin to keep it interesting for them. However, it is me developing their outline.

The b.) Storylines are always cooperative builds. NPCs have goals at this point, and are trying to figure out how to make those goals happen. If the PCs get involved, they influence those stories. If not, I play them out on my own and let the PCs discover the result of not being involved somewhere down the line.

The c.) Storylines are usually somewhat inevitable. They are destined to take place. They start with an action out of the control of the PCs. It is important that the PCs can succeed or fail for the level 10 and 16 storylines without it being the end of the campaign, but there are high stakes. The level 10 storyline is often political (nations at war), while the level 16 storyline is often universe altering (who will be the new God of Widgets?), while the level 20 storyline will determine whether the next era of the campaign world will be one of darkness, or light (will the next campaign start in a world overrun by demons, or one rebuilding after a demonic invasion was turned back?)

Every battle has a chance of a win or loss, but few are deadly if the heroes pay heed to the warnings. There are threats they are warned may be too tough, and they can run into a CR 20 monster at 5th level if they are not careful, but that takes very bad decisions. Generally, the tension in my games comes not through the risk of death, but the risk of failing to meet goals that matter to the PCs outside of protecting their lives.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
In my experience, the "sandboxy" elements in 1e adventures is more... "irrelevant content to which I can attach meaning". Back in the day when I had a lot of time to game, this was useful. If you are getting people together every week for 5+ hours to play, that extra content is useful, even if you don't attach it to anything in the grander scope of your setting.

In the adult times, my games tend to be shorter and less frequent. I find the players want sessions to be pretty solidly focused, so I don't have need for that extra content - I bend the core of the thing to fit in with my other elements, or I don't run the adventure at all.
 

It did make me wonder about people's design philosophy when it comes to choosing, adapting, or writing adventures for their home games. Personally what I like about 1E modules is that they tend to be big and sandbox-y providing me a framework for establishing my own stakes and making the elements fit in my own setting. I honestly don't think I've ever run an adventure as written - so I guess one of the qualities I look for is adaptability.
Speaking as someone who exclusively runs Original/Classic D&D (not 1st edition AD&D, but everything 0th edition from the white box through the Rules Cyclopedia), I prefer to avoid modules at all costs. For the most part, they're just really, really, terribly bad examples of what a good game of early D&D looks like. Even when they aren't cribbed from tournament modules, they're usually either too boring, too deadly, or too railroady. Most modules, even the beloved early entries in the B- and X-series, just aren't worth the trouble of reading through them and trying to implement them.

When you craft your own sandbox, fill the hexes yourself, draw your own dungeon, and stock its rooms with the various tricks, traps, treasures, monsters, puzzles, etc., you're not just creating something inherently suited to your play-style: you're also creating something that's uniquely yours, something that you know better inside and out than any adventure or dungeon that someone else has written down. It makes gameplay smoother, it minimizes table-reading (since you can often key an entire hex or a whole dungeon room with just a single line of text to remind yourself what's there, rather than multiple long paragraphs taking up a whole column on half a page in a module booklet), and it's bound to feel more creative to you if you've done everything yourself—which really does make a big difference in terms of both enthusiasm and confidence while refereeing the game.
 

Eltab

Lord of the Hidden Layer
So I was prepping an old 1E module for use in my 5e campaign.

- little snip -

View attachment 130364

- Big Snip -

Oh and if anyone is curious, I don't think the adventure this warning is from is REALLY all that dangerous. . . but I need to finish reading it through and begin the actual conversion.
Did you (re-)discover The Tomb Of Horrors?

Nah, it's all legends - that reputation is greatly overblown.

Whippersnappers

- A Grognard
 

jgsugden

Legend
You can't really do a sandbox module. By definition, you're giving them a series of things to do. You might be able to have some of then be optional, or some of them be done in different orders - but the structure of what is to be done is there. And that is not really sandbox.

Sandbox, as it is most often used, requires you to be able to go off the tracks and explore any nook and cranny of your choice. There may be goals and plans at work amongst NPCs, but the PCs can ignore them or alter them radically without changing the module - because the finish line and future elements are not known. You write the script as you go as opposed to reading the book to give you the path.
 

el-remmen

Moderator Emeritus
Speaking as someone who exclusively runs Original/Classic D&D (not 1st edition AD&D, but everything 0th edition from the white box through the Rules Cyclopedia), I prefer to avoid modules at all costs. For the most part, they're just really, really, terribly bad examples of what a good game of early D&D looks like. Even when they aren't cribbed from tournament modules, they're usually either too boring, too deadly, or too railroady. Most modules, even the beloved early entries in the B- and X-series, just aren't worth the trouble of reading through them and trying to implement them.

As someone who used the Caves of Chaos and a re-drawn "ruined" Keep on the Borderlands I can't say I agree! Then again, I used what was there to build a kind of eco-system and network of monsters and ruins for the characters to explore and engage with. It was a heck of a lot of fun. They were like big game hunters, but monster-hunting. That is exactly the kind of flawed adventure I prefer. The flaws are places for me to play and add and adapt without having to do stuff from scratch.
 

werecorpse

Adventurer
I think I’m the opposite. I try and read adventures from any D&D iteration or any rpg game, or indeed adventure story I can find to see if I can access a different or new adventure twist. Then I use the bare bones that inspired me and heavily convert it to fit my game.
 

Adventure design isn't specific to challenge the players/characters, I just design what makes sense. At lower levels (and major battles) I double check them against either the DMG or XGtE chart, simple because I don't want them to be too deadly (low levels) or easy (major battles). The specific moments are not normally designed to focus on a specific character, partially because the player (and thus character) might not be present, making it much harder than it should be.

As for a campaign, it depends on what I'm trying to do. In every case, I try to make the players decisions matter. I've run an AP style campaign where I've had to switch part of the middle due to the players decisions. I've also run totally open sandbox games where I offer up numerous plot hooks and let the players decide (although I require them to do so at the end of a session to give me time to prep). Both can be a lot of fun.
 

Enrico Poli1

Adventurer
In my experience, it all depends on the shared style of DM and players. I always ask my players the level of difficulty they want for the campaign: easy, normal, difficult, or deadly. (They almost always choose normal)
It's true that there are written modules that are very hard, almost impossible to conclude (Tomb of Horrors, Return to the Tomb of Horrors, Savage Tide, Labyrinth of Madness...) but as a DM I can always adjust difficulty.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
If I purchase modules it's to mine them for ideas, NPCs and encounters that I may or may not use as written.

Since I'm playing remote, I do have to plan things (especially maps) out more than I prefer but I never create "modules" per se. I create NPCs, groups, events, environments and ongoing stories that may or may not ever have an impact on the game. So I will plan out encounters that make sense for the party, have a general outline of what's going on and then see where the PCs go.

This extends to pretty much all my planning. I have "mini-arcs", usually a session or two as well as overall story and world arcs. But the PCs don't have to do anything, and frequently could not pursue all options. Instead at the end of a session if we don't leave off in the middle of something, I'll present a series of options, rumors and plot threads. They can also suggest something if they want, and occasionally do. Then the group votes (I've started using ranked voting) on what to do next. That gives me the option to get a general idea of where they can go if they want.

The balance, of course, is giving them direction(s) without so many options that they feel like there is no good choice. At the same time I don't do a railroad, but I have gotten good at improv and re-skinning encounters if needed.

I find this works well for me and is less work than prepping modules.
 

cbwjm

Hero
This warning was due to the whole taking your characters from one game to another that they did back in the day, right? Where you'd bring your favourite wizard from Randy's game to a game being run by Mandy. Mordenkainen was running around joining games with different DMs so if Gary didn't want him to die, pregens were the best way to go.
 

el-remmen

Moderator Emeritus
This warning was due to the whole taking your characters from one game to another that they did back in the day, right? Where you'd bring your favourite wizard from Randy's game to a game being run by Mandy. Mordenkainen was running around joining games with different DMs so if Gary didn't want him to die, pregens were the best way to go.

Oh yeah! Definitely!
 

You can't really do a sandbox module. By definition, you're giving them a series of things to do. You might be able to have some of then be optional, or some of them be done in different orders - but the structure of what is to be done is there. And that is not really sandbox.

Sandbox, as it is most often used, requires you to be able to go off the tracks and explore any nook and cranny of your choice. There may be goals and plans at work amongst NPCs, but the PCs can ignore them or alter them radically without changing the module - because the finish line and future elements are not known. You write the script as you go as opposed to reading the book to give you the path.

There are many kinds of sandboxes. Most sandbox campaigns I think, are cordoned off areas in which the players are free to explore many predesigned locations in any order they like. The DM may know how the story starts, and how it will roughly end, but perhaps not how the group will get there. The story can be linear or flexible to the choices of the players.
 

Rhenny

Adventurer
When I design a campaign, I start with a hub and create a web that may spin off in 3 or 4 directions. The pcs explore the hub and its environs and then touch on the off shoots. They have full choice which to follow. As the campaign grows, I continue the web design, but after a while, it becomes more of a pathway/linear, with a few side treks or contingencies. By that time, the players have pretty much committed to the story arc, so they don’t need as much free reign.

To me, linear with contingencies or alternate paths that can be inserted at different intersections is the easiest for me to manage, yet still give players choice when they want it.
 

jgsugden

Legend
There are many kinds of sandboxes. Most sandbox campaigns I think, are cordoned off areas in which the players are free to explore many predesigned locations in any order they like. The DM may know how the story starts, and how it will roughly end, but perhaps not how the group will get there. The story can be linear or flexible to the choices of the players.
If you know the end, there is a destination, and that means you're on tracks. There may be many paths, but you're still on tracks. Even being flexible means there is still an end goal to get to ... which means you're on tracks.

The idea of a sandbox is that there are no tracks. You can play anywhere in a sandbox and do anything - because you're not trying to get anywhere. You're there to have fun. You just organically play and see what happens. A lot of people think they're running sandboxes because they let the players take path A, B or C to get to a destination. That is still being on tracks. If your players have a goal you expect them to pursue, then you've moved out of the sandbox.

However, there is nothing wrong with having both sandbox and tracks in a campaign. If you watch Critical Role, Mercer is very good at melding both approaches. The Mighty Nein began on a rail - there was a mystery at the circus, and they had to solve it. Then he let them explore and built adventures as they explored. As he did so, he began to pepper in things that related to their backgrounds, things that laid a path ahead for them to follow, etc... In other words, he let them play in the sandbox, but put bright lights around a train station at the edge of the box and lured them to it. They would then get them on a train which they'd follow to complete an adventure, and then enter another sandbox. However, whatever they decided to do, he let them go do - even if it took the train off his tracks.
 

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