My opinion on published campaign settings is documented and correct (because it’s my blog and I can say things like that). But published settings go hand-in-hand with something that I’ve never discussed: published adventures. Stargazer’s World talked about them recently, which I heard about when the Haste Podcast brought it up.
In general I don’t have as dim a view of published adventures as I do of published campaign settings. Yes, they’re still impersonal, resistant to modification, and occasionally nonsensical, but in smaller doses. It’s a lot easier to tweak something in an adventure to fit your party and style of play than it is in a larger setting. If I want to change the shopkeeper in an adventure so that he’s a former caravan driver that the party knows from a few arcs ago, I can do that without having to worry about whether this changes that particular NPC’s relationship with the evil cult in another sourcebook. The reach of the material is understandably smaller, so changes cause fewer world-rending ripples.
But I think there’s something deeper here. Stargazer’s World lists the following four issues:
First is that they often lack a helpful summary of the adventure for DMs who can’t read the whole thing beforehand. DMs don’t pick up published adventures because they’re the last bastion of modern creative writing; they pick up published adventures because it’s worlds faster than writing an adventure of their own. But this doesn’t have anything to do with the adventure itself, just the way it’s presented to the reader. It’s a problem that merits attention but not something that damages the at-the-table enjoyment of the DM and players beyond the extra minute it takes the DM to look something up.
Second, they’re badly organized. Again, this isn’t a problem with the “adventure” as much as with the “published.” It’s rare that I pick up any sourcebook and think “this was organized very well and everything is easy to find”, which is why my DMG and GMG have sticky notes on the inside covers with a list of my favorite tables and their page numbers.
Both of these points cause problems, but even an adventure with no summary and bad editing is still sound and usable. If a DM has the time to read the adventure and find where things are, these are alleviated if not eliminated and the session can be saved. Campaign settings don’t really have these problems because it’s assumed that the DM and players will read and internalize the information before running a session or even designing characters.
Similarly, the fourth point (I’m skipping ahead a bit here) is that the adventures have through-the-roof railroading. Again this is irrelevant to campaign settings because they’re more like (overwrought, persnickety) sandboxes. A campaign setting that railroads is an adventure rather than a proper setting.
The third point is where there’s finally some overlap: nonsensical adventure design. D&D doesn’t have a lot of historical or geographical basis to violate, but there are a lot of places to get things wrong. For example, an adventure that requires the players to travel through a forest during a rainy night was written by somebody who has never been in a forest during a rainy night. Dungeon maps are particularly bad, even without getting into a fight over dungeon ecology; actual strongholds have things laid out in specific ways because they work, and I can’t wrap my mind around maps that look like they were designed for adventuring first and actual use second. This is something of a pet peeve of mine from way back when I started video gaming, before we expected things in games to look or act like things in the real world, and I could hammer out an entire post on which games got it wrong, which got it right, and which couldn’t decide.
This is especially egregious because I tend not to use published adventures except for cherry-picking ideas, monsters, and maps from them to use in my games. I used to maintain a repository of adventures to use as inspiration for a session, then file off the serial numbers and tweak it to fit with what I wanted. A missing summary, hard-to-find stat blocks, and railroading often didn’t bother me because they weren’t relevant by the time I got through with plucking out the bits I wanted. But a lousy map is an unusable map, and an adventure with enough unusable elements is an unusable adventure.
This also let me get past the one thing I could think of that consistently irritated me about published adventures: the level recommendation. Adventures have to make certain hard-coded assumptions; an adventure that has the players exploring a pyramid has little or no place in a metropolis until the DM does some fancy (and often awesome) footwork. There’s nothing that breaks flow quite like reskinning a tundra adventure into a swamp and forgetting that there’s a combat based around fighting on thin ice. But the intended power level of an adventure is harder to adjust. An L5 party can go through an L4 or L6 adventure without a problem, but an L9 adventure will ruin them and an L1 adventure is far too easy. Usually the plot and flow themselves can be preserved unless they requires that the players have or lack some particular ability. However the monsters, traps, and challenges are unsalvageable and often need a complete redesign, which defeats the point of using an adventure at all.
A long time ago I tried my hand at writing adventures specifically designed for this type of “take the good, drop the rest” style. The idea was to provide a map, some monsters, and some loot, then largely call it a day. I wrote some brief justification for why the players might be exploring this particular map, but it was largely up to the DM to provide the fluff and the hook. That way the DM could grab the session, trust that the numbers are fine, and spend their limited time just coming up with some storyline that worked with their players, setting, and style. The adventure itself allowed for almost any location and used only SRD monsters to minimize the amount of flipping around. It even had encounters and challenges appropriate to a ten-level range, so DMs could use it at L1 or L10 (or, if they were like me, adjust the difficulty based on how well or poorly the players were doing).
I think this actually gets past every problem: The summary is irrelevant and there’s no railroading because there’s no hard-coded plot, the organization is simple because the important information is in the existing books, it’s too simple to have anything nonsensical, and it’s accessible to a variety of campaigns. If there’s any interest, I might go back and dust it off, maybe update it for Pathfinder or 4th Edition. I’ve learned a fair amount about session design in the last six years; maybe I can spruce it up some.