A friend of mine recently began to run his own Pathfinder RPG game and opted to use a prebuilt module from Paizo rather than craft his own adventure. Now this was a bit foreign to me as I have never run from a module, instead choosing to free form the trials that I put my players through. After speaking with him I got to thinking about some of the pros and cons of both kinds of adventures, prebuilt and “home-brewed”.
Prebuilt adventures are a go to for a large number of DMs that are just starting out, and for good reason. It’s prebuilt. Not that it makes it any easier to run a session mind you; after all, no adventures survive first contact with the players. But if you are just starting out as a DM a prebuilt adventure or module can be a tremendous help.
At the most basic level it provides a guided adventure where everything is already done. Monsters are chosen, maps are drafted and descriptions (i.e. flavor) detailed, treasure generated, and so on. But more than that, for a new DM who wants to begin to pen their own story, it provides a visual example of what goes into an adventure. This that can seem a bit daunting at first but after seeing it done a DM has a better idea of the work that needs to be done when writing.
But one downside is that a module doesn’t cover everything nor will it anticipate everything the players may do or react to. The DM still has to their job after all. The module doesn’t have anything to do with how the players build their characters or how the party is composed. It doesn’t think for you. And the advice that the writers of the module give them DM for running the sessions can vary wildly. The best modules provide tips and reminders throughout the book (or pamphlet) on how the monsters and prebuilt NPC behave. What happens when traps go off and a good portion of what to be ready for. While the terrible ones can be little more than a few maps and stat blocks.
In either case the best advice I can give in using modules is that it is much like studying in school. Make copious notes of everything that seems like it would be important. Copy the stat blocks for monsters on 3×5 cards, read the module several times over, know it inside and out. Learn the names of the important NPCs and be ready to recall them on a moment’s notice. I’m not saying you need to know everything in a module, but it can really break the pace of a game session if you continually have to reference the book.
So, after running a few modules you decide you might think about making your own adventure and telling your own story. I will admit, it’s pretty damn cool.
And it’s friggin’ hard.
The hardest part for me when I started was knowing where to begin. It’s tough to understand until you do it. I spoke to my players outside of game sessions to get their thoughts on how to go about composing my game. They were all DMs and there was some ribbing but what I walked away with a lot of valuable advice.
First, choose the tone of your adventure. Is it dark and gritty? High Fantasy? Political? Or just your garden variety Hack’n’Slash fest? A setting vibrant and rife with heroic deeds and a feeling of hope or oppressive and glum? Tone is important; it can tell your players how things are in your game. What to think about as they go about wrecking your plans and how they build their characters.
Next, the scope of your story should be addressed. Scope is kind of a hard thing to visualize. Think of it as how focused the events of your game are, and the area or your game world the players’ actions will affect. Is it limited to a small to mid-sized town; or a grand saga that spans decades and continents, or for the REALLY ambitious, a multi-generational game? Yes that means the players may eventually play their characters descendants. Choose the scope based upon your skill level. It is extremely easy to make big plans and then get overwhelmed by the details or not have thing go the way you want. I’d say, start small and spin the world around your players. Expanding the scope as they progress, or start each adventure fresh with a little story of how the players came across the idea to go to said dungeon/battle.
Once you have the scope and tone in mind, the real work begins. I like to start with writing the hook for my adventure. What pulls the party together or sets them after what I’d like to see happen. This will involve writing up a few NPCs integral to the story and where the adventure is located. On a side note, give the shop keepers names. It’ll save you some quick thinking later.
After the hook has been baited, map your setting. The town/area should be detailed but doesn’t need to be too specific unless you plan to have combat there. For dungeon based adventures I find it easier to just write up the nearby town as a list of options for the players to visit and spend most of my time preparing the actual places they will be visiting. Once your dungeon is mapped, note the important rooms and write descriptions of what they are like. If you are trying to set a specific mood (Tone!) get detailed. Right down to how the air smells and what the floor is like. Is there vermin? A bit of wrecked wood in the shape of an old table, moldy things? All of that is important. Get specific. The more fleshed out things are the more invested your players will be. Mmm, crunchy bits.
Monsters! Your monsters should be appropriate to the setting that you have chosen. They players will look at you sideways if they go into a fort expecting brigands and you start throwing odd ball things like a Sphinx at them. It makes no sense. On the other hand if you are adding monsters that don’t make sense in your dungeon, give them a reason for them being there. Paradox or something, make something up, just don’t set the precedent of adding things for no reason. Also, 3×5 cards for monster stats are awesome. Use them. It’ll make your life easier.
So, you have your tone, your scope, bait, maps, people, beasties, and notes. What’s left?
Goodies, swag, sponduli, Geld, Cash Money, shiny baubles and badass swords.
How you handle rewards in your game is entirely up to you. I prefer a mix of random rolls and cherry picking loot when I pen an adventure. Make the loot justify the difficulty. No one wants to get a +1 short sword after putting a Mind Flayer in the dirt. Trust me. For games that aren’t really about the loot, rewards can be in less tangible forms. Such as favors from people in power, holdings, titles, even the scars that come from a tough fight can be a reward. Reputation can be a real thing in an ongoing narrative, powerful in the hands of those who know how to use it. Both to the player and the DM.
Also, keep a list of how much XP each of your encounters are worth. Players will undoubtedly bypass some chances at XP here and there. But again, you should be prepared for the XP question at the end of the session with little to no referencing the book.
Finally, if you want an idea on how to bridge the gap between running modules to running your own adventures; look at a few cheap adventure pamphlets. Often you can find some that just have monsters, maps, and a basic hook. What I’ve heard of some DMs finding success with is using the setting/maps but filling in their own story with the ready-made stats. Just a little something to think about.
Thank you for reading and happy rolling!