Well Read: Best Practices for Reading Adventure Modules
Welcome adventurer to the Running Adventure Modules blog series. Over the course of five articles, we’ll cover all the tips and tricks a busy GM needs to run pre-written adventure modules with little to no prep time!
In this introductory article we’re taking on a deceptively simple concept, how to read a module to get all the content you need (just by reading it once).
What is an Adventure module?
Before we dive in, let’s clarify some terms so we’re all on the same page. To kick things off, let’s talk a little about what an adventure module is.
An adventure module is a pre-written adventure that a GM can use to create game sessions for their players. Modules exist in several different forms ranging from adventures that can be played through in a single 3-hour game session, to campaign-long adventures that fill entire hardcover books.
Some modules are specifically designed to fit into homebrew campaigns as mini-arcs or side quests, and others assume the campaign takes place in a pre-existing campaign setting. Whatever the specifics, every module includes the following:
- Story – Whether straightforward or complex, every module includes a narrative framework that the GM can guide the players through, and ensures the players know how their characters can interact with the world.
- Encounters – These are challenges the player-characters must overcome to move the story forward. Encounters take many forms and are organized in different ways, but at their core they are problems the characters must use their resources to solve.
- Resolution – A module must have a conclusion that lets the players know when the module has ended. Gaining a reward, surviving to fight another day, or learning a vital piece of information are just a few commonly used resolutions.
Why use a module?
Modules are a fantastic resource for the busy GM because they handle a lot of the prep work for you. A GM with a module doesn’t need to devote hours to worldbuilding, worry about creating appropriately balanced encounters, come up with NPC names, or construct satisfying narrative plots. Since so much of that prep work is already covered, a GM with a module can more easily focus on all the other things they have to worry about: making sure everyone has fun, getting the characters personally invested in the action, and adjudicating the rules.
Not All Modules Are Created Equal
We are living in an exciting time where consumer interest has skyrocketed and caused the TTRPG market to boom. In response to sudden opportunity, everyone from major corporations to individual hobbyists is rushing to publish content at light speed in hopes of grabbing a piece of the pie. While more content is great news for us busy GMs, much of the content in circulation has sacrificed quality control for speed. In summary, it can be hard to find the good modules amongst those of lesser quality, and even when you find a batch of good modules, there is no guarantee they will be the right fit for your GM style.
As you run more modules, you will start to figure out what kind of stories and organizational elements work best for you, but it can be frustrating to sink time into finding good modules on top of the normal GM work you already have to do. Here are some tips for finding great modules quickly:
- Start with small modules, not giant adventure books. When you are first starting out, dropping $50 on a shiny 200-page adventure can be tempting, but it isn’t the best way to learn. Before you break the bank, run a handful of short 1-2 session modules so you can get a sense for what you like. Sharpening your module-running skills on digestible short-form content better equips you (and your players) for the challenges of running gigantic campaign-length modules.
- Watch for publications from companies and authors you trust. It always pays to keep your eyes out for product announcements from the publishing companies you admire. Following companies on social media, signing up for digital newsletters, and subscribing to Patreon accounts is the best way to see announcements about new module options with minimal effort.
- Use online platforms to read user feedback and reviews. Popular self-publishing websites like the DM’s Guild or DriveThruRPG allow consumers to leave ratings and reviews on the modules they buy, so use that information! Chances are, if a module has multiple 5-star reviews, it is probably a good candidate for your needs.
How to Read a Module
It may seem completely obvious how to ‘read’ something like a module but hear me out. A module has little in common with a fiction book, article, or anything else meant to be read from start to finish. A module is more like a textbook, crammed full of hyper-specific information meant to address a wide variety of needs. Have you ever sat down and read a textbook from beginning to end in that order? Yeah, me neither. That sounds exhausting.
A lot of people will tell you that you need to read a module from start to finish before you run it, but honestly, that is rarely the case. And most busy GMs don’t have the time to do so. So, let’s talk about what you really need to read and run a great session by using a module.
What You Need to Read
Sometimes, despite our best efforts, life gets hectic, and a GM finds themself in a position where they have an incredibly brief amount of time before their game group shows up ready to play…and they’ve got nothing prepped. Sometimes, despite our best requests, a GM shows up to run a table for a gaming convention…and they have mere minutes to review the adventure the organizers hand them.
These module reading strategies are for those desperate GMs (and don’t feel bad, we’ve all been there). In this section, I’ll break down the items you need-to-read to maximize however much prep time you have!
The following items are in order of importance, so start at the top and work your way down until you run out of reading time:
- Read the adventure summary. Typically, there are a collection of helpful paragraphs right at the beginning of every module. Some of the better ones have various helpful sections for communicating the structural flow of an adventure. At minimum, there should be some kind of ‘adventure summary’ or ‘adventure overview’ paragraph that neatly summarizes the core action of the adventure. Make sure to read it first before you do anything else! Note, that this section is sometimes labeled ‘adventure background.’
NOTE: If there are two separate sections labeled ‘adventure overview’ and ‘adventure background’ at the beginning of your module, just focus on the overview paragraph. In instances where both sections appear, the ‘adventure background’ section typically gives a lot of contextual information not necessary to slap together a gaming session.
- Read the conclusion of the adventure. After you read the adventure summary, flip to the end of the module and read the ‘conclusion’ paragraph (or whatever the last paragraph of the adventure is). If you know a module’s starting point and end point, you have a pretty good chance of being able to get the players from point A to point B.
NOTE: If you are running a chapter or section of a larger module for your session, just read the conclusion paragraph at the end of the section you are running. If you are running something out of a giant multi-faceted module, there is no reason to waste precious minutes reading about an ending your players certainly will not get to by the end of one session.
- Scan for any critical secrets or pieces of information necessary to move the plot forward. Hopefully, the module you have chosen has made it very clear what the players need to accomplish to reach the end of the adventure. But that is sadly not always the case. Take a little time to scan through the adventure and identify the critical pieces of information that the players need to move the action forward. Such pieces of information can include: the locations of stairs that lead to the next level of the dungeon, the locations of items tied to the story, the solutions to puzzles that block progress forward, etc.
NOTE: Identifying clues on the fly can be simple or wildly complicated depending on the type of adventure featured in your module. If you start looking for clues and find something that is too hard to understand in a single read-through you should absolutely feel free to cut the encounter entirely, simplify the encounter, or swap out the encounter for something more straightforward (like a monster to fight).
- Make a list of all notable NPCs that appear in the adventure. Once you know where the adventure begins and where it ends, scan through the module to find the NPCs that help move the action along. You will feel much more confident if you take a minute to write down the names of the critical quest givers, the allies, and the villains so you aren’t struggling to figure out who-is-who in the heat of a session.
In addition to the names, you should also make a brief note of any physical characteristics or personality traits that will help you describe and portray them, as well as taking note of why they are important to the players.
NOTE: Again, make sure to focus your scanning efforts only on the section of the adventure you will be running. Learning about NPCs unlikely to appear in the session is not a good use of your time when you are in a crunch.
- Scan for the adventure’s encounters and review any mechanics you need to. Once you have a solid grasp on the overall structure of the adventure, spend time reviewing the challenges your players will meet during the session. Encounters include any section of the adventure that have consequences for failure, but the most common are monsters to fight, traps to overcome, or puzzles to solve. Using a few minutes to find and read through each encounter will ensure you have plenty of fodder to keep your players busy during the session.
NOTE: If your adventure includes multiple options for encounters (like a random encounter table or branching quest paths), do not read and try to prepare them all! Pick one that sounds interesting and just use that one. Don’t make your life harder than it needs to be just because a piece of paper says to roll randomly.
And those are the five most important items to read! Of course, if you find yourself with the blessing of extra time you can do a full read through of the section you intend to run for your session, but remember, sticking to the absolute need-to-know will have you mastering modules in no time at all.