Your Top Tip(s) for Prepping a Published Adventure

MonkeezOnFire

Adventurer
The most important thing I think is to find a published adventure that you actually like and are excited to run. There's nothing that kills the enthusiasm at the table faster than the DM being bored.

Once I choose an adventure the first thing I do is just read the adventure in its entirety. I'll only note down ideas for tweaking or expanding something if they come to me, but at this stage it's not the main goal. I just want to get an understanding of the adventure as a whole at a high level.

Next is where I start to make more detailed notes on certain NPCs, locations or plot hooks. There's no real science to this. I might just go back to things that stuck out to me during my first reading. Or I'll go chapter by chapter. Or if I know I'm converting to another setting I'll systematically go through things that need changing. This can result in anywhere from a single page document to dozens of pages depending on where my ideas take me.

Then from there it will just be standard weekly before pre-session prep. Uploading maps and tokens to Roll20. Refreshing myself on possible scenes or locations the party can visit for this session. Rebalance encounters as needed for a bigger or smaller party.

Generally my style is pretty light on prep. I'm confident in my ability to improvise as long as I have a solid understanding of the story and the characters.
 

Prakriti

Hi, I'm a Mindflayer, but don't let that worry you
Some of the onus needs to fall on the players to run their own characters. Depending on the party makeup reviewing them could take quite a long time. So heres my prep tip: Make sure the players know they are responsible to have a basic understanding of their characters.
Agreed. I don't have time to see what spells my players can do. I'm too busy on mine (small enough group that I have to run one too) and on prepping for the next session.
I agree, and I expect my players to know how to play their own characters too, but sometimes players get things wrong, and I really don't like having to correct them later. Sometimes, if the mistake is in their favor, it feels like I'm nerfing them. "Hey, you know that awesome ability you've been using the last few sessions? Well, it's going to be a lot less awesome from now on..." That's why I like to get everything right from the get-go.
 

R_J_K75

Adventurer
The most important thing I think is to find a published adventure that you actually like and are excited to run. There's nothing that kills the enthusiasm at the table faster than the DM being bored.
Funny how sometimes the best and most obvious advice is often overlooked. I have spent time reading adventures that turned out to be not that good, which I didn't run. I've also prepped and ran adventures that turned out not that good in play but seemed fine beforehand. Depending on the players the worst written adventure can be a blast and the best written adventure can bomb, sometimes its a crap shoot.
 

R_J_K75

Adventurer
I agree, and I expect my players to know how to play their own characters too, but sometimes players get things wrong, and I really don't like having to correct them later. Sometimes, if the mistake is in their favor, it feels like I'm nerfing them. "Hey, you know that awesome ability you've been using the last few sessions? Well, it's going to be a lot less awesome from now on..." That's why I like to get everything right from the get-go.
New players definitely will get my help. Generally yes I'll push all my players in the right direction during their action round. Most of us have an intermediate grasp on the rules which were all fine with, if something sounds logical and feasible we run with it and I'll adjudicate as I see fit at the time. I try my best not to open a book at the table unless absolutely necessary, my main concern is to keep the game moving. My above post was about the player whose been in the group awhile and asks me "what can I do "? when their turn comes up. My answer will be "Nothing this round".
 
I'll start by saying that most of the published adventures that I run are pretty heavily modified to fit my specific campaign. So my tips are made with that kind of mindset. Some of the things I'll mention have been sited already, but I think they bear repeating.

  • Only run an adventure that you think will be interesting to both you and the players. I agree with @MonkeezOnFire that this is vital.
  • Do your best to read the adventure in its entirety. At the very least, know the opening portions well, and at least skim the later parts. Yes, it's ideal to read the thing entirely and in depth, but the realities of life don't always allow for that, so you have to do as much as possible.
  • Do what you can to adapt the adventure to fit your campaign (in the case where the adventure is being used for an existing campaign) or with your specific group of PCs in mind. It should be possible with some minor tweaks to get your players a little more invested by having their characters tied to the events, locations, or NPCs featured in the adventure.
  • Similarly, tailor things to your players. If you're playing with a group you know well, then you know there may be certain things that won't appeal to or work for your players. Do what you can to make things a better fit for them. For example, a couple of my players can only handle so many NPCs before they just lose track. When I ran Tomb of Annihilation for them, I found the beginning of the adventure to be overloaded with NPCs.....potential guides for the jungle trek, several nobles in the city....so many NPCs. I eliminated most of them, and kept each group to a manageable amount. I also added a couple of NPCs for roles I thought were missing that were likely to come up for my players (an alchemist in the city, etc.).
  • I think the most important thing is to treat the book as a guide. It's not a holy text that cannot be changed. It's a game and it needs to be fun. If there are things that seem like they may be a good idea when you read them, but then when you reach them in play, they don't go well, do not be afraid to adapt them. Again, in Tomb of Annihilation (MINOR SPOILER ALERT) Acererak has what is basically a demiplane version of the tomb where he tests his traps and such. It's like a beta version of the tomb. The idea is pretty cool. But when my players wandered into this alternate version of the tomb, I realized how much of a diversion it was going to be, and how redundant if we played things out. So I simply narrated what they discovered and explained what it was, and we moved on. Never be afraid to change the material during play if needed.
  • Before each session, I try to jot down a list of possible ways things can go, or what I expect the session will include. Obviously, the players can totally destroy such expectations, but I find that having a little bullet point list ready is helpful. I try to have whatever materials may be needed for those possibilities (stat blocks, maps, etc) ready for those parts.
  • If the players do something unexpected, and you're less prepared for what they do than you thought you'd be, then just do your best and use your judgment and keep things moving. There's nothing worse than watching someone frantically flipping pages while we all wait for them to find the info they need. Just make it up as best you can remember, or do something you think will be interesting. If they've really thrown you off, then I think saying "hey, I need 10 minutes to kind of refresh my memory for this part, can we take a break while I read a bit?" This will give you a little time to either find what you're looking for or make up something suitable, without the pressure of a roomful of people staring at you while you scramble.
  • Keep things moving. Don't get bogged down in rules minutiae and questions if it can be avoided. Make a ruling and keep on, but make a note of the question and then read up on it after the game so that you can handle it better next time.
  • Related to the above, don't be afraid to rely on the players to assist with some of the game elements that the DM has to track. Have a player track initiative. Have another who looks up rules or spell questions in between turns. It's a group activity and the cognitive load of being DM is heavier than that of any individual player, so have them help out where possible.
  • Above all else, try and maintain the fun. If things are bogged down for whatever reason, try to change things up a bit, or throw a complication the PCs' way. Keep the players engaged and involved.
 

Prakriti

Hi, I'm a Mindflayer, but don't let that worry you
Related to the above, don't be afraid to rely on the players to assist with some of the game elements
...including creative elements. The PCs want to know the name of that random NPC you just invented on the fly? "Someone give me a name," you say, and voila, Fats McGee the innkeeper is born.

Maybe this breaks immersion for some players, but others will like it. They might even fall in love with the NPC they "helped" create and try to make it an important part of the game.
 

R_J_K75

Adventurer
If the players do something unexpected, and you're less prepared for what they do than you thought you'd be, then just do your best and use your judgment and keep things moving. There's nothing worse than watching someone frantically flipping pages while we all wait for them to find the info they need.
In minor situations like this here's what I do. We play at my house and there's usually about 6-7 people at any given session so its cramped quarters. I generally sit where if I have to get up at least a few people have to move and that's by design. If the players throw me a slight curve ball, I'll get up to use the bathroom, have someone grab a round of drinks, etc. That minute or two usually long enough for me to gather my thoughts enough to move on without the players being any the wiser. If I need we'll just take a short break.
 
In minor situations like this here's what I do. We play at my house and there's usually about 6-7 people at any given session so its cramped quarters. I generally sit where if I have to get up at least a few people have to move and that's by design. If the players throw me a slight curve ball, I'll get up to use the bathroom, have someone grab a round of drinks, etc. That minute or two usually long enough for me to gather my thoughts enough to move on without the players being any the wiser. If I need we'll just take a short break.
Yeah, for sure.....you buy as much time as you need. With something minor, a break like that can do the trick. if it's gonna be longer, then letting folks know you need a few minutes is a good idea.

I try not to stop at all, if I can help it. There are a couple of times where a player did something totally unexpected, and we all just ran with it and I abdicated everything on the fly and it became a memorable session.
 

CleverNickName

Limit Break Dancing
The best advice I've got for running a published adventure is:
  1. Read the whole thing first, from cover to cover.
  2. Consider what your specific group of PCs will bring to the adventure, and what they will get out of it. Then make minor changes to fit them. If nobody in the party wears heavy armor, maybe replace that full plate with leather. If nobody has a silver weapon, maybe rethink that werewolf encounter--or place a silver longsword somewhere.
  3. Read the whole thing first, from cover to cover. I can't stress this enough.
  4. Rename the NPCs and locations as needed to fit the rest of the game world. A few memorable names are better than a large number of forgettable ones. If your campaign already has a tavern and an inkeeper, use them...don't introduce new ones just because it's in the published module.
 
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pogre

Adventurer
An echo of some earlier advice:
  • Skip stuff your players don't like. Mazes and bottleneck riddles go in the trash for my current group.
  • Someone mentioned reducing the combat encounters, but my group LOVES combat. I'll add a few twists to combat encounters to make them more interesting - I may even add some combat encounters,
  • If you are fortunate enough to have a regular group, you know what motivates them. Trash adventure hooks if they won't work for your group. My group is action-oriented we often start in media res.
 

oriaxx77

Explorer
  • Make it part of your world.
  • Review opponent stats
  • Add some details that fits the atmosphere e.g to dungeon rooms
  • Think about the next module
  • Change stupid names, details etc
  • Make some colored notes and charts with story element connection details
  • Drop the stupid parts
  • Develop it with your ideas
 

R_J_K75

Adventurer
Yeah, for sure.....you buy as much time as you need. With something minor, a break like that can do the trick. if it's gonna be longer, then letting folks know you need a few minutes is a good idea.

I try not to stop at all, if I can help it. There are a couple of times where a player did something totally unexpected, and we all just ran with it and I abdicated everything on the fly and it became a memorable session.
The key here is how quick can you react to something unexpected without letting the players know that they caught you off guard. The smoother you keep things going the better because you are correct that they can sometimes make for the best encounters that are talked about for years to come. One time I had a player bypass a door by putting a portable hole on the floor so the door was in the middle of it. He just jumped in the one side and came out the other. Technically should I have allowed it, maybe not but it was so creative and unexpected I had nothing, so I just said OK.
 
The key here is how quick can you react to something unexpected without letting the players know that they caught you off guard. The smoother you keep things going the better because you are correct that they can sometimes make for the best encounters that are talked about for years to come. One time I had a player bypass a door by putting a portable hole on the floor so the door was in the middle of it. He just jumped in the one side and came out the other. Technically should I have allowed it, maybe not but it was so creative and unexpected I had nothing, so I just said OK.
Yeah, that's great....I always try and reward creative thinking like that. Cool ideas are always going to work....or at least, partially work and lead to new interesting things.

As for the players knowing....I don't even mind if they realize they've caught me off guard and I'm now freewheeling. When I home brew adventures (which is most often the case) I do a lot of light prep so that I can go whichever way the session demands. I try not to treat a published adventure differently.
 

S'mon

Legend
Know the supernatural powers the PCs can wield and try to spot if a challene designed in the published adventure won't be totally circumvented by your group.
Players love this, the occasional easy win, so I wouldn't spoil the fun for them.

I agree about making your own list of module NPCs to refer to. Preferably on one page of A4.
 

S'mon

Legend
How do you like to get around them? Start with the PCs having already accepted the mission?
For a 'mission' campaign I like to start with a 'mission briefing' scene, like the one at the start of The Orville ep 1 s 1. Players can ask questions while getting into character and getting to know each other.
 

R_J_K75

Adventurer
When I home brew adventures (which is most often the case) I do a lot of light prep so that I can go whichever way the session demands.
I definitely think there is a point to over preparation whether its a published adventure or one you write yourself. So I think that theres something to be said for newer DMs being conscious of this and as they get more experience trying to minimize prep and strive for more improv. For me improv consists of having all the tables which a good DM screen will provide, random tables and lists that will allow you to come up with something in a couple seconds with a few dice rolls.
 
I definitely think there is a point to over preparation whether its a published adventure or one you write yourself. So I think that theres something to be said for newer DMs being conscious of this and as they get more experience trying to minimize prep and strive for more improv. For me improv consists of having all the tables which a good DM screen will provide, random tables and lists that will allow you to come up with something in a couple seconds with a few dice rolls.
In recent years...mostly since 5E came out...I've found that running published adventures is in many ways more challenging for me. The reason is that it's easy for me to edit things I've created or thought up, but doing so for material written by someone else always seems a bigger deal. Like I'm messing with some carefully crafted formula and any change will throw things off in unforeseen ways.

Which of course is not very often the case, but that conflict causes me more thought than it should. That's why a lot of the tips I gave above are about knowing that you can and should change some of the written material.

I think that's a really important thing for DMs to keep in mind, especially newer ones.
 

LordEntrails

Adventurer
  1. Read it
  2. Search online for associated;
    1. Review
    2. Play through
    3. Remix
    4. Resource
    5. Plot map / story map
  3. Figure out how/what you are going to incorporate from your characters backgrounds and stories
  4. Determine what additional maps you might need (or area descriptions)
  5. De-linearize the published plot
    1. Determine faction motivations
    2. Create versatile/flexible response teams for the factions (or random encounter not for random encounters but for repopulating areas and providing on-demand encounters)
  6. Outline or mind map the adventure as you think you are going to run it
 

R_J_K75

Adventurer
In recent years...mostly since 5E came out...I've found that running published adventures is in many ways more challenging for me. The reason is that it's easy for me to edit things I've created or thought up, but doing so for material written by someone else always seems a bigger deal. Like I'm messing with some carefully crafted formula and any change will throw things off in unforeseen ways.

Which of course is not very often the case, but that conflict causes me more thought than it should. That's why a lot of the tips I gave above are about knowing that you can and should change some of the written material.

I think that's a really important thing for DMs to keep in mind, especially newer ones.
I don't run or convert many pre-written adventures for 5E either. As far as there being a carefully crafted formula I highly doubt there is one. Probably more of a guideline. Since the challenge rating system was introduced I never thought it worked all that well. From what I understood its based on a party of a certain number and you need to adjust up or down from there. My opinion is that even people who write adventures professionally are guessing as well as home DMs, only their guess is more educated. I just throw whatever I think is a good challenge for my players at them with the idea that let common sense prevail if its to easy or too hard.
 
I've never in my life seen a module for which this was true, at least if you insist on the level of detail that I do (which is to say, the equivalent of a published module).
It's true for me... but maybe that's my fault. Large modules (say, more than 100 pages) make me feel like I have to know/remember a lot of stuff in advance, and reading the module once is not enough, and it starts to feel like studying. On the other hand, if I design an adventure myself the details flow naturally to my mind and I never forget them because they were my ideas. The real problem for me is that I am not good at writing good plots, for them I still have to rely on professional authors.
 

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