How Do You Feel About Published Adventures as a GM?


When I was a kid new to RPGs in 1985, having discovered the Basic Set and then the Expert set, the only premade adventures we ever used were the Basic dungeon, Threshold and environs, and The Isle of Dread. These were sufficient to teach us how to make our own adventures. For the most part, all through the 80s, 90s and early 00s I never used published adventures. I bought and read some, including Dungeon Magazine and adventures for other games (I especially liked reading Champions of DC Heroes adventures) but I used them as inspiration or to steal stats from. I did dabble a little in trying to run the original Dragonlance adventures at some point, but it did not go very well.

Later, in the mid 00s, I started using published adventures more. I ran the 3E "adventure path" modules (Sunken Citadel, Forge of Fury, etc) and Red Hand of SDoom (still th best module WotC has ever published). It was not until the Paizo and Pathfinder era that I really started running pre-written adventures more often. More recently, using Fantasy grounds for most of my gaming, I now run adventures more often than creating my own.

But here is the thing: I really, really don't like running modules and I absolutely hate reading them (especially WotC and Paizo style modules). I still default to modules when learning a new system (Shadowdark, for example) just to get a sense of the design intent. But if I like the game and I "get it" I prefer strongly to just run the game.

Part of it is simply that I am an improv GM and I don't see the value in detailed adventure design even if I am writing it. A loose outline, a handle on the rules, and a list of names are really all I need. That is how I run games in person and at cons. I just find that more difficult on Fantasy grounds than it is in person, so I default to adventures. But, Monday I started a new adventure "my way" even using FG and it went great. Now, I am dreading running my Pathfinder2ER Abomination Vaults campaign tonight because I do not like the adventure as written.

Anyway, enough about me. How do you feel about published/pre-written adventures? Do you run them as is? Strip them for parts? Don't even consider them? When you run an adventure of your own design, do you "write it" before play? If you do use pre-written adventures, what kind of "prep" do you do with them?

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I like having them around. I use them as as is, but tend to add more side quest stuff to make it tailored some to the players at my table. I also like having the shell of a campaign like the LMoPhandelver box set and be able to expand it past the 5th level and even just use some of the town and skipped over parts for another whole campaign.

Professional designers and even others on DMsGuild can make great adventures that I would have never thought of on my own, so why wouldn't I want to use them to make my table the best it can be.


I'll consider them if it's from a reputable source/company and has positive word-of-mouth. Generally, I'll pick up most Chaosium adventures, because at the very least it's an interesting Lovecraftian read.

I rarely run them, and if I do, I basically rip out 50% of it and replace it with home-brew. For example, when I ran Curse of Strahd (the last WOTC adventure I've run), I made huge structural changes that made it more fun for me. For example - I replaced Strahd-as-Vasili with Ireena-is-actually-evil-and-an-agent-of-the-Dark-Powers. The twist/reveal in Vallaki is a Top 3 TTRPG moment with that table.

That being said, it's still a rarity. To my mind, with over a decade in the hobby, I've run:
  • Keep on the Shadowfell (4E)
  • Curse of Strahd (5E)
  • Masks of Nyarlathotep (Call of Cthulhu 7E)
  • Dead Light (Call of Cthulhu 7E)
  • Blackwater Creek (Call of Cthulhu 7E)
I guess to summarize, I mostly read them for inspiration/"strip them for parts". They don't change the way I prep (I still use @SlyFlourish's Lazy DM Prep), other than I read the thing before I run it.

I’ve spent the last ten years or so running canned scenarios. My mistaken assumption was it was saving me time. It doesn’t. The possible exception that’s ready to run out of the box on a VTT since I almost exclusively game online now.

I’ve also found it has atrophied my imagination. So this years I’m trying a couple of new things. I hope I to get my long gestating SWADE Blades in the Dark game to the table. BitD ethos, SWADE rules. And I’m starting a SWADE Dracula Dossier game, again NBA ethos SWADE rules. DD bills itself as an improvisational campaign framework. I’m hoping it’s the happy middle ground.

All of my attempts to run something like a Paizo Adventure Path have met with mixed success. My group is generally ok with riding the rails but I never feel like they are getting the full story.

I can't really make any sweeping generalizations about this subject, there's too much variation in quality and utility. I rarely use modules exactly as written, and frequently enjoy reading them for inspiration and to serve as idea mines rather than using them at all - but there are exceptions. A few examples off the top of my head:

I never ran any 4e D&D module in a recognizable form, but I did pull out encounters and reskin them for use in my own homebrew stuff. Only had one player twig to the reskin during a fight the whole time I ran that edition, and he was a sometimes-DM who'd run the module I'd cribbed the fight from himself. Credit to him for not exploiting the knowledge.

Keep On the Borderlands is one of very few D&D modules I've run dead straight, and that was way back around 1980 when I was pretty new behind the screen and players were less critical of dumb scenarios. I've used it since, but with varying degrees of customization.

I owned ever single V&V adventure back in the 80s, and ran a few of them almost as written - Crisis, Death Duel, From the Deeps of Space (although that one wound up much expanded). The majority of them got carved up for ideas and NPCs. Helped establish a lifelong fondness for reading superhero adventures and villain books regardless of system even when I knew they were unlikely to see use at the table.

Also used quite a few of the early CoC adventures, including a full run through Shadows of Yog-Sothoth when it was new. Most ran fine with minimal alteration. Had pretty good luck with the published adventures for FASA Star Trek too, although I didn't run that long and I seem to have lucked out and gotten some of the better ones while dodging the stinkers.

Ran a lot of the LBB Traveller adventures, although I don't think any of them escaped significant alterations. One of the ones I had the most luck almost straight as written was originally from Space Gamer magazine, sprawled over three issues. These days it seems to be known as the Scotian Huntress trilogy, referring to the canon ship used in it.

There was also a early Champions adventure in Space Gamer called School Holidays, by Aaron Allston no less. It was fun running it as a kid, but it's aged like milk under a hot sun. The scenario is set in a high school that's invaded by a supervillain team and their platoon of hired mercenary soldiers, with the student body held hostage at gunpoint while the villains try to identify a budding super they plan on killing. Aaron obviously couldn't predict Columbine and beyond, but I can't see how to rehabilitate that one for 2024. At least the map's still useful enough.
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Until 3e, I barely ever bothered with published adventures. From BECMI to 2e, I just wasn't good at bringing at running them. I started to get the hang of it in 2e, but still didn't use them much. It wasn't until 3e, particularly with Necromancers Games' modules, that I finally got the knack of balancing a pre-written adventure with the improvisation needed to properly bring it to life.

There's a same-y quality to a lot of published adventures that cuts across a lot of games and genres, where the PCs are basically stepping into an amusement park-style haunted house, complete with animatronic jump scares and maybe the illusion of free movement, but really there's just one path.

I don't just mean railroading issues, which are sort of inherent to the whole project of writing and publishing an adventure. I mean that sense that the adventure has no bearing on the PCs, and that it's often quite the zany coincidence that they show up at just the right moment in some factional standoff. Sure, there's almost always some backstory to convince yourself as a player that you should care about (even though, again, you just showed up, you're just some guy/gal), but it's hard to shake the sense that the haunted house was powered down until the moment you set foot inside, and now the attraction springs to life.

Then it's on to the usual, recurring business of solving the puzzle—poking around until you find the safest route through, or in an adventure where you can talk to anyone, finding out which faction/NPC wants what, who they're beefing with, basically immersing yourself in someone else's story, rather than developing your own. And then, by nature, when the adventure is over, you're generally on your way, ride's over, time for a change of scenery, maybe with some shadow of a lingering plot hook or thread, but it's time to hit the next haunted house attraction where no one knows your character and everything is in a state of suspended animation until you show up.

I know there are lots of exceptions, and that some published adventures are more adaptable—or simply better written—than others. And if you're playing a full-on investigation game, working without any sort of published material can be hard to the point of impossible. But the default qualities of most published adventures, imo, kind of shine a light on how boring and repetitive RPGs can be when everything is scripted, and the GM's sole job becomes punishing you for doing the "dumb" thing, and rewarding you for the "smart" thing. Meanwhile, great narratives in other mediums don't care about what's dumb, smart, incorrect, or correct, just what's most interesting.

I don't have time to prepare adventures myself these days. When i was younger I wrote most of what I ran. Today I run prepared adventures and fill in the blanks to keep the story cohesive. I almost exclusily run on VTT.

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