Tobold's Blog
Friday, June 22, 2012
Redecorating D&D adventures

As I said yesterday, the rules system is not necessarily the part of a pen & paper roleplaying game that has the biggest impact on the game experience. With a given rules system and a given group of players, the Dungeon Master has two major levers with which he can play to make a great game: The way he runs the game, and the adventures he chooses, writes himself, or modifies. Today I'd like to talk about modification of existing adventures. How can you redecorate an adventure to make the game better?

The first rule in redecorating adventures is that there is no general rule. Basically every Dungeons & Dragons group is different, and wants different things from the game. If you already know what your group wants, make sure that your adventures are strong in that area. If you don't know or are playing with people for the first time, offer them a bit of everything and see where they bite. If your players are looking for a simple dungeon crawl and you are giving them a complicated political roleplaying adventure, things are likely to go not very well.

I tend to start my redecorating of adventures by analyzing which parts of it would be sub-optimal if I played it as written with the rules system and the group of players I have. For example if I taken an older adventure and try to play it in my current 4E campaign, the adventure as written will obviously be missing the tactical combat encounters which are core to 4th edition. Thus I will need to transform an old school D&D room description ("30'x40' room with 6 orcs") into something which is up to the tactical standards of 4E. Or, alternatively, I simply remove the orcs; for my group I prefer a style of play with a mix of combat and roleplaying, so I'd rather have one good tactical combat encounter plus some exploration and roleplaying than three rooms in series with some small fight each.

For my campaign reducing the number of combat encounters is a change I even apply to 4th edition adventures. For example the Keep on Shadowfell adventure as written has a large dungeon with a mix of goblinoids and undead. I removed all the goblinoids, making the dungeon a lot smaller in the process. That avoids the inherent flaw of the Keep on Shadowfell adventure, in which as written you are supposed to stop the archvillain from performing an evil deed, but end up fighting goblins and hobgoblins for days and days. Every edition of D&D, including Next, has that problem of the 15-minute work day, where players exhaust their resources in fights, and need to rest for a night to recover them.

Keep on Shadowfell is an adventure where my redecorating went rather far. The adventure as written has a lousy story with an extremely weak and unconvincing archvillain. As I wasn't happy with him at all, I fired him, and replaced him with the archvillain who escaped from the group in a previous adventure. A demon with an already established background story of looking for a way home to the Abyss, and with an already established ability of having power over undead makes for a much better archvillain in that dungeon full of undead than some generic evil wizard the group never meets before the final combat.

The other extreme is adventures that can be played nearly as written, with only very little redecorating. If the story is good, and the adventure already has the mix of combat and roleplaying I want to have, there is no reason to fundamentally change things. That does not mean that there are absolutely no changes required: In a campaign it is always a good idea to link an adventure with both past and future adventures of the campaign, adding story hooks that make the campaign feel like a great whole instead of a collection of disparate adventures. The other minor changes usually required is adjusting the combat encounters to the strength of the group: 4E adventures are designed for 5 players, so as my group has 6, I usually need to add an enemy or two here and there to make the encounters challenging enough. A DM with a smaller group would have to remove some enemies unless he wants his group to die a lot.

Different Dungeon Masters spend different amounts of time on preparation. Redecorating a 4th edition adventure for a 4th edition campaign is still relatively fast, as you can use the encounters, battle maps, and the tokens that are supplied with some adventures. But beyond that I'm planning to play some of my favorite adventures of 30 years of D&D and other systems. That is a lot more work, as I will need to create the encounters, maps, and tokens myself. But for me that is fun too. Your mileage may vary.

>How can you redecorate an adventure to make the game better?

My main goal is to make the adventure _about_ the characters. As you noted, it's nice to tie it with previous stories, the other thing to remember are the characters' backstories, stated or implied. Maybe the villain is from the same religious order as party priest. Maybe villain has higher rank, maybe he genuinely tries to help the order (by hurting anyone else). Anyways, dealing with him should prove more interesting if he means something to the characters. In D&D, each character has at least two hooks - race and class, so this should be enough to engage players even in the first game.

Another trick I use is I look on players' character sheets, note the coolest powers and abilities, imagine the situations where they could be used to the fullest, and then try to include those situations in the game.
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