Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, July 19, 2017
Build your own adventure

Three years ago the 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons was released with the basic rules and the Starter Set. It is a great success, selling better than any previous version of the game. And I do belive that the Starter Set is part of that success. The included adventure, Lost Mines of Phandelver, does a great job of presenting both a story and a world setting in a manner that is accessible even to people who never played D&D before. Unlike previous editions it is now perfectly feasible for a group of new players to start 5E without anyone of them having been taught the game by an experienced player. That is a great quality to reach a wider audience.

Unfortunately I must say that the following adventure modules published by Wizards of the Coast for 5th edition D&D do not have that quality. Curse of Strahd is okay, as it still allows a new DM to follow a prepared story. But adventures like Princes of the Apocalypse, Storm King's Thunder, or Out of the Abyss aren't really suitable for beginners at all. They very much subscibe to the sandbox philosophy of gaming, which risks to get both new DMs and new players lost.

After struggling for a while with Princes of the Apocalypse, I decided to completely change my approach to that adventure. You know the adventure module has a problem if somebody is selling A Guide to Princes of the Apocalypse with good success. I tried and tried to find the adventure in this adventure module until I realized there wasn't one; this isn't so much an adventure module than a sourcebook of a region with a bunch of dungeons that can be put together by an experienced DM to form a long adventure. But it is up to the DM to sort out the bits and pieces into a story and take care of important details like how to get to the next dungeon as well as providing a compelling story reason to go there. The book provides plenty of story hooks, but either as a dry list of 21 possible hooks, each leading to a different part of the adventure, or as clues from various NPCs. The latter method is less dry, but you end up with the characters getting clues towards dungeons that are too high level for them, just because they decided to talk to this or that NPC. The clue to the place where the characters should be going first is from an NPC they can only meet if they visit the barber shop. When was the last time your group decided spontaneously to visit a barber shop?

So basically I have to build my own adventure by pushing the right clues into the path of the players. If they are given options like for example which dungeon to visit, I will need to provide them with clues as to the consequences of their decision, e.g. which dungeon is more dangerous. Otherwise you end up with a frequent flaw of sandbox design, being given a meaningless choice between going left or right with zero information about what the difference between going left or right is. I canuse the settings descriptions mostly as written, but I need to create an adventure linking the various places mostly myself.

Unless I prepare a lot, I would easily get lost. Information is distributed somewhat haphazardly all over the book. And a good amount of it is useless, like the long description of two rivaling poultry merchants in the starting town, which has absolutely nothing to do with anything else in the story. With nothing leading towards the poultry merchants, nor anything from them leading elsewhere, how likely am I as the DM to need that detailed description?

My group is still in my abridged version of the Lost Mines of Phandelver, but they already got some clues about what the Princes of the Apocalypse adventure is about, and one possible place to start. I will continue to chronicle their adventures on this blog under the Elemental Evil heading. Just remember that if you read a sequence of events in that journal, this is a mix of what I made up and what resulted from players' ideas and initiatives. If you would want to replay the adventure, you wouldn't necessarily find that sequence, or in fact any sequence of events that make up a story, in the Princes of the Apocalypse book.


Why should everything be playable by newbies? What will entertain those who are playing for years? You can't feed them 10 kobolds.
D&D isn't a computer game. Just because an adventure is well structured and has hints how to run it for beginners doesn't make it any less suitable for experienced players.
Time-strapped Gamemasters can benefit just as much as newbies from advice on how to run scenes and other details. I'm leaning more towards sandbox style adventures now, partially inspired by Lost Mines as mentioned but have in the past had success running very linear/hand-holdy published adventures and that with a group of veteran D&D players.
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