D&D General What are the minimum standards for a published adventure campaign?

TheSword

Legend
So I’m a big fan of published adventure campaigns. That will come as no surprise to anyone who sees my comments. I’m inherently lazy and not great at detail. I can solve problems but ask me to do any kind of dull or repetitive task and I get bored quick. So published adventures tick a lot of boxes for me. I see a lot of folks attacking published campaigns quite vociferously for things that to my mind seem like very trivial things.

It is known that there are always three versions of any written work. What the writer intended to say, what they actually write and what the recipient reads. There are a lot of possible combinations in those three moving parts. Any complex system is going to start gaining conflicts and D&D is a complex system. It’s not possible to have over a dozen classes, multiple feats, racial abilities, magic items, environmental factors and an infinite number of monsters or NPCs. We see systems remove these conflicts with simplification. Though there are many of us that like a bit of crunch and would see rolling a D6 and succeed on a 5 or 6 as unsatisfying.

Published adventure campaigns are often expected to be playable out of the box. Pret a manger as it were. I honestly don’t see how this could possibly be the case. To be so would require some objective standard of what the ‘correct’ gaming group looks like. Which we know doesn’t exist. It would also require a standardized level of DM skill - also a pipe dream. Of course every published campaign is ready to go - provided the DM is willing to match their style to that of the campaign - something many of us (particularly on these boards) seem reluctant to do. That is possible though. You could just get over your annoyance that the troll fight was too hard or the bandits too easy and just play on.

My question is what are the hard lines. What is an absolute requirements for you to enjoy a published adventure. Do you set the bar so high you are seem always to be disappointed - in which case have you ever found an adventure campaign that met your expectations? For the sake of the discussion if you just don’t like the idea of running someone else’s work on principle then this discussion ain’t for you. That’s a totally valid way to play but let’s keep this thread for people who do want to use a published adventure and go from there. (Yeah, definitely going to need to + this thread.) disagreeing with what the standard should be is fine - but let’s not start getting down on the idea.

Here are my hard lines. These are just my own, and I don’t expect any company to start working to them just because it’s my preference.

- It has to be inspirational. That doesn’t mean it needs to be novel - it could do the classics very well and that would still be great for me. Ultimately it needs to hook me with the idea that would make me play.

- It has to be interesting to read. If I can’t enjoy reading the book first - it ain’t never gonna make it to the table. I’m not looking for a reference book - it’s got to take me on a journey.

- It has to have good artwork and good quality colour maps. I play on VTT I don’t want to have to go searching for fan made versions of the maps in the book just so I can use them. Theatre of the mind is valid but it insufficient for me. This also links to the inspirational and fun to read elements before.

- It needs to have great engaging NPCs that make me want to play them as a DM.

- It needs to have sufficient detail to save me time and to allow me to get into the zone of the NPC, monster or location. Names, descriptions, key information.

- It needs to feature Gaming from Below to flesh out the world and make it feel like a real and lived in place..

- It needs to have a mixture of freedom and progression - usually by having small sand boxes with things to do separated by some kind of gate to keep things moving along.

- It needs to understand and use the rules system that it’s written for in a competent way.

- It needs to anticipate PCs actions to certain extent. Sufficient to give me at least one path as an example of progression.

For me a published campaign doesn’t need to anticipate every possible PC action or even what I consider to be ‘obvious’ just because I know my players. Nor does it need to grant permission for things to proceed a certain way. I recently saw a published campaign criticised because clues were supposedly ‘gated’ behind a skill check. A child was upset and a DC13 charisma check would calm her down. The reader seemed to claim this meant the clue couldn’t progress on a failure as if giving the child a present, distracting her with a task or just using compulsion magic couldn’t also resolve the problem. Those things weren’t spelled out so the AP was poor. I don’t need your permission I just need an example to point me in the right direction.

It doesn’t even need to be great start to finish. The trilogy of adventure books Cormyr, Shadowdale were fantastic, while Anauroch was really poor but I still remember that as a brilliant campaign. We just cut it short. As I said, I don’t need perfection to be happy.

What are your hard lines to be able to run something like Curse of Strahd or Rime of the Frostmaiden. Incidentally this would also refer to D&D clones like Pathfinder etc.
 
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Reynard

Legend
What are your hard lines to be able to run something like Curse of Strahd or Rime of the Frostmaiden. Incidentally this would also refer to D&D clones like Pathfinder etc.
First of all: you should probably edit the title of the thread, since "campaign setting" usually refers to a book describing an overall setting, not a campaign length adventure.

With that out of the way: the number one thing that an adventure need to be for me to use it is accessible. I need to be able to use it at the table easily. That means dispensing with the purple prose and not-quite-a-novel writing and tell me what is where. Everything from stat blocks and DCs need to be right there, seen at a glance. Use good information design as a tool to make my life as GM easier. Don't make me hunt for information I must have to effectively run the game.
 

TheSword

Legend
First of all: you should probably edit the title of the thread, since "campaign setting" usually refers to a book describing an overall setting, not a campaign length adventure.

With that out of the way: the number one thing that an adventure need to be for me to use it is accessible. I need to be able to use it at the table easily. That means dispensing with the purple prose and not-quite-a-novel writing and tell me what is where. Everything from stat blocks and DCs need to be right there, seen at a glance. Use good information design as a tool to make my life as GM easier. Don't make me hunt for information I must have to effectively run the game.
Very good shout! I’ve updated.
 

TheSword

Legend
I should add, I’d be really interested in hearing any campaigns people think are really good for any edition and why.
 

Parmandur

Book-Friend
At minimum, it should have maps and mathematically worked out challenges.

I agree with everything you list as being useful, amd the more of all that there is, the more likely I will be to buy and run it.

But as a minimum, if I get a module and it has maps and coherent encounters or trapa or puzzles or Mysteries (for Calll of Crhulus more than D&D on thet last one)...I can use it.

And this stuff is for use, after all.
 

TheSword

Legend
First of all: you should probably edit the title of the thread, since "campaign setting" usually refers to a book describing an overall setting, not a campaign length adventure.

With that out of the way: the number one thing that an adventure need to be for me to use it is accessible. I need to be able to use it at the table easily. That means dispensing with the purple prose and not-quite-a-novel writing and tell me what is where. Everything from stat blocks and DCs need to be right there, seen at a glance. Use good information design as a tool to make my life as GM easier. Don't make me hunt for information I must have to effectively run the game.
I must say I quite like the rules and monsters being split into different books in the Planescape adventure. I find pdf makes things much easier. God bless the ctrl F function.
 

ichabod

Legned
  • It needs to have an interesting hook to bring me and the players into the adventure.
  • The pieces need to connect reasonably well
  • It needs to be clear to the DM how the pieces connect.
  • It needs to be well written and well edited in terms of the rules of the game.
It has to be interesting to read. If I can’t enjoy reading the book first - it ain’t never gonna make it to the table. I’m not looking for a reference book - it’s got to take me on a journey.
This is not something I want. I am looking for a reference: a reference on how to run a decent adventure. Parts of it I want to be interesting to read: the overall summary, the backstory, the player information. That gets you my first criteria. After that it I want it written solely to facilitate running the campaign at the table.
 

el-remmen

Moderator Emeritus
I've never run an Adventure Path style campaign book, but I have run linked modules that were (then or later) put together as a "super-module," so my answer will be colored by that. But. . . .

  • I need it to be capacious. In other words, it needs to have spaces for me to stick in other sidetreks and adventures. It needs to link adventures without assuming the PCs will take specific actions or accomplish specific tasks (aside from "completing the previous adventure," whatever that means - because sometimes they don't even have to do that!).
  • Clear maps. (for me that means black and white iconographic maps without a lot of bells and whistles, but I know other people have different opinions).
  • Interesting locations. I don't necessarily mean inside the skull of a colossal dragon floating in the astral plane, but the place should matter and color the feel of the adventure, even if a simple ruined castle.
Basically Ghosts of Saltmarsh.
 

First, let me talk about why Lost Laboratory of Kwalish is my favorite 5E adventure.
  • It has fun ideas that inspire me to run them. The Bone Devil body-mech, the brain in the jars in the floating laboratory, the undead medusa driven into hysteria because of the wildly evil kenku that trapped her, the baubles that lead to other worlds -- this is stuff that sounds fun and that I might not have come up with on my own. That's key.
  • It gives advice for running the adventure. Specifically, it talks about different paths, and it shows how I can rearrange the chapters of the adventure in different ways for different results. It also talks about expanding some parts, using some characters, modifying other encounters and the story to taste, and alternate story routes you can take to use the adventure. This is the biggest thing.
  • It has interesting combats (not all of them, but many of them are) and interesting encounter tables. One of the encounters is, as destroying a messed up monastery, the flayed monks who escape find the PCs and are chasing them -- but they are chasing them because they want the PCs to be their new master. LOVE this.
  • It has plenty of cool rewards. I absolutely loathe adventures that don't give PCs fun toys, like magic items, to play with. I am uninterested in running D&D for just the classes -- I want specifically magical items that they can get, and magical items that they can interface with if they can't get them.
  • It gives me scenarios, not storyline. There are story threads and advice for tying it together, but it doesn't rely on A then B then C. Instead, it gives me several scenarios ripe for my players to get involved with. Scenario design, IMO, is far more interesting and useful then plot design for adventures.

So let's talk about one of the examples in the OP, Rime of the Frostmaiden. There are many things I love about this adventure but I would not run it as is. I think this adventure, and most of WotC's adventure paths, fails to give me options for modifying the adventure, and doesn't give very good advice for moving things around, changing things, and so on. Furthermore, some parts of it rely very strictly on storyline (A -> B -> C), which means if something in the storyline breaks, I need to change what's happening. That's fine, so long as the adventure talks a little about this. Furthermore, many of the smaller parts of the adventure don't inspire me too much. Some things do, like the weirdly evil albino moose, the Frostmaiden warlock you investigate at the beginning, and so on. However, the adventure hooks specifically are so weak. Having to do stuff like "Go check up on this cargo that hasn't come back" feels so lame to me, so stock. If I wanted that idea, I could have easily come up with it myself. I want adventure hooks that I would have had trouble coming up with, and maybe couldn't come up with by myself at all. After all, I pay for adventures because I want to be inspired by them. If it is generic content, then I feel my money was personally wasted.

Frostmaiden isn't unrunnable. I've sketched up different changes I'd make to run it. But, unlike the Last Laboratory, Frostmaiden doesn't give me enough advice to easily make these changes. This means I need to spend a lot of energy digesting the content and then puzzling out for myself how to edit it. This will likely happen to some degree anyway, but having to do it a lot with very little to go off of is very disheartening. As someone with ADHD, it's hard for me to motivate myself to put in all this effort to run a book when, in reality, I could have just made it myself a lot simpler etc etc.

Another example is Descent Into Avernus. I have ran this adventure, but not to completion. That's because the adventure just got too forced in a single direction for me. I don't mean in regards to being a railroad -- I have a high patience for these -- but much of the adventure felt like the coolest things were only briefly mentioned and I'd have to flesh them out on my own. To put that another way, if it takes me more time to figure out how to run your book then it does for me to read it, then I'm put off on running it. And the best way to get rid of this problem is to give the DM advice for changing things.

Lost Laboratory's greatest strength is how its chapters can be rearranged. I can run this adventure several times over and it be a different result everytime. And because it shows you how to rearrange the chapters and talks about it, it's very easy to do so. I don't have to understand the entire product to rearrange it, I can follow the advice and use that to basically "skip ahead" on the thinking normally required. If more WotC adventure paths took this approach, going a little less hard on storylines and focusing more on scenarios, I'd think their books were very high quality. There's a reason Curse of Strahd, IMO, which is just a scenario you get thrown into, is so popular. And there's reasons that Adventure Paths, despite their sells, often face heavy criticism online.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
For me, I just want the adventures in a concise 1e-like form that minimizes page-flipping, on paper, with detached maps so I can easily glance back and forth from the map to the words. Doesn't have to be hardcover.

Don't bother with backstory, connecting bits, and setting info as I'll just be tossing all that out and replacing it with whatever ongoing plotline already exists in the setting/campaign I'm running; as that campaign will for sure be bigger and longer than any one adventure series or path that gets embedded within it.

Minimum (and yet rarely met) standards, otherwise, for both standalone modules and full APs:
--- the maps and the write-ups have to agree with each other (an amazing number of modules fail on this e.g. the map shows a 30x10 room while the write-up insists it's 30x20, or the write-up says it's an hour walk from town to the hermit's shack but the map scale makes it a two-day trek)
--- the maps have to be functional e.g. tell me how long the staircases are, what vertical distances they cover, and which way is up/down; tell me which way the doors swing open; tell me elevation changes if the terrain is uneven, stuff like that (most maps fail badly on these)
--- if provided, boxed descriptions have to allow for entry into the area from any possible direction rather than assuming an entry point (most published modules fail on this)
--- put the (concise!) stats for each area's occupants in with the description of that area rather than make me flip pages
--- cover off the obvious what-ifs e.g. for the bits intended for mid-level characters or higher, assume at least some of them can fly and write accordingly
 

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