Ask Angry: Be Prepared for Published Modules

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Do you have a question for The Angry GM! Well, because people can’t get it right, I had to set up a separate page with instructions. About how to send a f$&%ing e-mail. Ready How to Ask Angry to learn how to submit a question.

Chris, Man Without Time Asks:

Please impart wisdom on preparing to run prepublished adventures. How do you prepare? What do you recommend fairly new DMs do to prepare? … I’m a busy person and I often can’t prepare an adventure for weeks at a time, so I’m getting ready to stay running Princes of the Apocalypse.

Well, holy mother of f$&%, a solid attribution. Name, link to personal tumblr, clever little descriptive clause. Nothing strange and nothing that makes me feel dirty just for typing it. Chris, you win the prize for the being the least worst person ever to Ask Angry Anything!

All right, let me piss off the D&D fans by saying this: the latest batch of D&D modules are horrible for anyone who doesn’t want to waste huge chunks of time on prep. They are LOADED with highly detailed walls of text and give you very little you need to actually just run the game at the table. I understand what they are TRYING to do and I want to applaud it. But I can’t. One time, I had to move a couch up a flight of stairs. So I asked a friend to help. He came over in the morning and dropped of a set of those furniture moving slidey pad things and then left. That’s what WotC is doing with the D&D 5E line of modules. I’m running the latest season on of Encounters at Dice Dojo South here in Chicago (Rage of Demons: Out of the Abyss) and holy f$&% do they simultaneously give you way too much and not nearly enough to actually pull off a game.

So, how do you prep for a published adventure? Especially one that’s a hideous mess?

Part of it depends on context. Where and for whom are you running this game. It’s a lot easier to do this for a one shot or at a convention. But since you’re using Princes of the Acropolis, I assume you’re looking to run this as a long running arc or campaign. Because that’s what the Module Formerly Known as Prince is.

Okay, so let me spell this out more generally. A big module or adventure is generally divided into a series of chapters or adventures or sessions or something. It’s broken down into chunks. You need to read the whole thing before you can start running it, but not the WHOLE thing. Basically, you need to read the beginning of the book where it explains what happens in the adventure and where it’s going. The backstory and the plot bits. There’s no way around this. Then, you need to read the introduction to each chapter of the adventure. The bits where it explains what happens in this chapter. That way, you have a general sense of where the story is going.

You should have some scrap paper handy so you can make some notes. You need to know things like who the big characters are that keep coming up in the story. And the names of the major locations. Things like that. You need to know what we call “the story beats.” The big ones. Because they kind of have to go as planned. And that’s really what you’re looking for. You’re looking for the things that follow the thread of the adventure.

Once you’ve picked that s$&% out, nothing else in the adventure needs to go right. As long as the adventure follows the general course, the little details are not that important. Minor NPCs can be anything. Combat encounters can be skipped or missed or neutralized. The individual bits of the adventure don’t matter. Which is good because that saves you a lot of energy.

See, before each session, you’ve got to review the chapter or segment that you’re doing. And again, you’ve got the get story bits for that chapter down. You’ve got to know what’s going to happen in that session. It doesn’t have to be plotted out like a flowchart. It’s just a general sense of “the PCs will have to enter the fortress, deal with the guards, find the secret vault, and deal with the big bad.” You need to know what things are going to happen to bring that chapter to a close. So you read the whole chapter and make notes about the vital bits.

Now, as for prepping to run the game, here’s where things get tricky. Different modules and different companies give you different mixes of information necessary to run the game. That is, the stuff you need to refer to at the game table to pull stuff off. We’re talking stat blocks for monsters and villains. We’re talking difficulty numbers for particular actions. We’re talking corner case rules for things like drowning or suffocation or lava. We’re talking spells and traps and magic items. When it comes to presenting actually information that is useful for running the game at the table, Wizards of the Coast right now is absolute s$&%. I’m pretty sure these games are being published by someone who has never run a game at the table. It’s inexcusable really.

As you read through the chapter you’re preparing to run, make note of the things you need to know at the table. Make note of the stat blocks that aren’t in the book. Make note of the magic items. Pay attention to weird rules. Once you’ve done your read through, prepping is a matter of gathering that s$&%. Take your Monster Manual down to Staples and photocopy that s$%&. Photocopy the magic items too and cut them out and you can just hand your PCs cards. Reread the weird, corner case rules. Make a reference sheet of difficulty numbers. Whatever.

Once you start running the game, don’t worry too much about running it by the book. As long as you hit the story beats you already highlighted, it’ll go fine. If you forget a detail, it’s not important. If you skip an encounter, it’s not a problem. You’re just trying to fit your game to the general shape of the adventure. That’s all.

So, have fun with the module formerly known as Prince, there, Chris. Good luck.

16 thoughts on “Ask Angry: Be Prepared for Published Modules

  1. My pet peeve is when they bury important story elements (like, say, the *only* clue that points the PCs toward the next section), so you have to read the whole module word for word just to find the reference (or even if there is a reference), which is naturally nowhere near the section on the encounter where the PCs are supposed to find the element. And it seems like the more reworking the module needs, the harder it is to find those critical elements that you want to keep.

    • God I hate this… I am running the horde of the dragon queen but you would have to read the second book to even know anything about several of the NPCs and what their goals are, what the rituals is and many other things. It makes it hard when the players get their hands on someone they aren’t supposed to and question them.
      I have to either adjust the campaign to make it fit with I say or make everyone in the entire cult not know how they are accomplishing anything. When I run my own home campaigns, I realized that since I make the story, I don’t have to worry about this. Its been the biggest difference between home and pre-written campaigns .

  2. I’m intrigued by OotA – apart from the unhelpful layout, what do you think of the adventure Angry? Are they getting better?

    • I can’t speak for Angry, but here’s my take:

      I bought Rise of Tiamat, skimmed it, especially the ending, and then gave it away without running it. It was garbage.

      I flipped through Princes of the Apocalypse at the bookstore, saw a bunch of cliches about desecrated tombs and revenant warriors, nothing that I couldn’t easily make up myself on the spur of the moment, put it back on the shelf.

      I picked up Order of the Apocalypse, LOVED the NPC descriptions and motivations in the first chapter, loved the random table for objects you’ve collected while in slavery, loved the DMG-like random tables for Underdark hazards/encounters, loved the art about svirfneblin and drow fashion and culture. That stuff I cannot easily make up on the fly. Bought it, took it home, immediately started prepping my own solo adventure through the first few chapters with a fantasy party to familiarize myself with the material, and if that goes well I might run the adventure with my players.

      I recognize a few gaps in coverage, relative to what Angry talks about above. For example, Chapter One doesn’t give you any real guidance (that I’ve seen–I’m AFB) on the narrative structure of Chapter One. It’s just, “You’re in captivity and here are your captors. Okay, go do something!” I’m not really worried about that though because that kind of thing is easy to set up on the fly and/or emerge organically, and besides, knowing my table the whole first session would revolve around meeting NPC fellow slaves and trying to get out of doing manual labor for the drow, and the underlying imperative is already clear (“get out of slavery before you die!”), so even if the PCs just collect five other NPCs, have the monk KO a guard during the middle of the night, and roll Stealth checks to get away, I’ll have a good handle on what happens next. Then again, the PCs could decide they’re going to murder all the drow in the outpost for the XP so they can start the next chapter at 4th level… either way, I don’t mind not having more written text devoted to plot vs. setting.

      There are a few things so far that I’ve hated but they are easily fixed: in Chapter One, instead of the permanent anti-magic zones in the slave pens, of all places, I declared that there is no anti-magic zone, but the guards will kill any slave who turns out to be a spellcaster, because they are too rare and too dangerous to keep for manual labor.

      That’s my opinion.

  3. How would you compare the other modules to Lost Mines of Phandelver in terms of completeness and usefulness? That’s the only standard I have for comparing them right now.

  4. I think every DM is different but I am currently working on adjusting my preparation to make it 1) take as little time as possible and 2) make it more effective. I am running horde of the dragon queen and found that I was actually doing more prepping than when I run my own campaigns. I would spend hours drawing the maps, memorizing every stat, writing everything down into a more easy to read format instead of a block of text.
    However I found that I never used 90% of the work I put into the prep and there was one area that I always got hung up on. I decided to scrap all of the preparation and only prepare the things I need the most and the things I screw up the most.

    The things I screwed up the most was Names and NPC motivations. So now i pretty much just gloss over all the other stuff to make sure I know the story. Then I writing down the names of everything that could come up in that session (cities, NPCs, gods) and I put them on a list that I hang on my DM screen. Then I look up or make up all the NPCs for the session and write down the valuable information about each of them. This can be their goals and fears, filling out their personality traits like the players background, or whatever else works for you.

    I think the important thing is to find what you need and are missing most often during the game and make sure you prep those pieces best.

    • I just had a conversation with my brother Dave on this idea that pre-written material may in fact take longer to create then one’s own original adventures once you’ve got a decent handle on adventure design. You’ve got to read so much just to figure-out the intentions of the writers had when designing the adventure. I feel like what GM’s really crave is a lil flavor text and the bullet points of the adventure… oh and a decent story. -Nerdarchist Ryan

      • @DM Sage: I’ve finally gotten to the point where I focus on the stumbling blocks in my home game and only sketch the rest. Rather, I’ve spent a couple of years applying your advice, but I’ve finally figured out what my stumbling blocks actually are. 😛

        @Nerdarchist Ryan: Yes please! Mechanics are almost never what attracts me to someone else’s work. I can do that lifting myself. What engages me as a GM is the interesting unfolding of the story and how the players will engage with it.

        I think that the Lost Mines of Phandelver path actually handled this in an okay fashion by giving a summary at the beginning of the adventure book, then prefacing each chapter with its own summary as well as how it fits into the upcoming material. Unfortunately, this was done with walls of text. It could have been trimmed significantly without losing anything important.

  5. Grab the Adventure Supplement from here:

    Most of the stat blocks you’ll need, and magic items, etc, are in a printer friendly, or digital friendly format. As someone who is also prepping PotA it’s useful. Also there are a couple of thread at Enworld and on the Wotc forums that discuss discrepancies in map distances along with a possible resolution (basically a scale change to the Dessarin valley map and to the Red Larch map).

    • Isn’t it a shame that they have to publish an adventure supplement to neatly gather everything relevant? Shouldn’t a published adventure be designed specifically for its target audience – GMs, people who need to have information handy at the table? Along with being designed by professional writers and playtesters, published adventures have already been through a professional editing and layout process. That’s the step where everything in the online supplement should have been placed in an easily-accessed spot in the book.

      I guess there’s something to be said for loose-leaf materials kept separate from the 255-page perfect-bound campaign book, a difficult monster to wrangle at the table. You know what? If they sold books like that in loose-leaf editions, like many college textbooks, I’d happily spring for a big binder to store it all in. And then they could include the contents of the online supplement as sheets which can be taken out and used when necessary.

  6. I recently discovered your blog and I’m enjoying it. So first, thanks!

    Reading this post made me wonder, “Are there any published adventures that infuriate the Angry DM less than others?” Because I have a feeling those ones might be better than average, and I want to go and read them!

    Angry, please let us know which published adventures induce less rage.

  7. Personally, I have a serious problem with published modules. Indeed, I think the better part of them is useless crap, and here’s my analysis of why in one sentence; published modules provide background story, stat-blocks and a string og A-Z encounters, whereas what I actually would want to pay for is inspired scenes with tough decisions and exciting events that shakes participation out of players.

    Stat blocks? Why would I pay for friggin’ stat blocks? Takes me 5 minutes to do half asleep. Background Stories?
    Roleplaying games is not a good medium to tell background stories, and few people (or even GM) will care about it; The medium is tailored for first hand immersion and exploring the consequence of choice… and most published modules I’ve read over the course of 25 years does not contain a single interesting decision point.

    And btw, what the hell does “An adventure for 2-4 players levels 3-5 mean?” This sentence alone is just enough to piss me off. Granted that I would actually play the adventure as is, running the numbers with no tweak at all, would it be just as great to play with two level 3 characters as with four level 5 characters? It’s a ridiculous and meaningless statement. And moreso, do they even realize that GM’s are able to adjust the module to any challenge level they would want to, and that we’re paying for the ADVENTURE, and not the cheap ass numbers?

    Am I a lone wolf in my regard here? What do you think?

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