Over the past couple of decades, it seems that the quality of published adventures* has gone downhill. I am not saying that all old published adventures are great and all new published adventures are terrible. What I am saying is that overall, there seems to be a shift toward the terrible end of the spectrum. There are plenty of people out there pointing out the flaws in bad adventures. I think the best blogger doing this is Bruce Lynch over at Ten Foot Pole.
While this is an important service to the community, I am not sure that adding my voice to this is really necessary. As an example in another situation…
So I am proposing a slightly different focus that the roleplaying community should take. Let’s make published adventures great again!
How do we accomplish this incredible goal? Well, we should identify the features of what makes a great published adventure…well…great. Once we have done that, we should find adventures that do those things and also create our own adventures with those features. With the rise of self-publishing and small publishers, there is absolutely no gosh-diggity-darn reason why you, yes you dear reader, cannot publish an adventure.
So what are the features of a good published adventure?
Before we can answer that question, first we must determine what kind of adventure it is. You cannot judge a mega-dungeon for not being a hex crawl. If something is billed as a mega-dungeon, but your group goes through it in a couple of sessions, it is not a good mega-dungeon! I have a short list of adventure types below and an example. If I missed one, please let me know in the comments.
The regular dungeon
What is a regular dungeon? Do you honestly have to ask? In all seriousness, a regular dungeon is a location, often underground, with hallways, rooms, critters, and traps. It is is the quintessential adventure location. A dungeon can be cleared after a few sessions of play. A group can go through several dungeons throughout a gaming campaign. My Assault on the Review of Nations would fall under this category.
What is a mega-dungeon? A dungeon so honkin’ huge that an entire campaign can take place inside of it (except runs to town for food and other supplies). If you have a good mega-dungeon, you may not need another published adventure for a year or more.Rappan Athuk would be an example of a mega-dungeon.
The dungeon plus a region
What is a dungeon plus a region? Generally, it is an adventure with a fleshed out town and/or region that is connected to a dungeon. The Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil would be a dungeon plus a region.
The hex crawl
What is a hex crawl? It is exploring an outdoor region on a map made up of hexagons. Maybe there is a town or two, possibly even a few dungeons scattered about. There will be many encounters in the wild, some from a random encounter table and some are planned (such as “when the party explores hex A102, they will meet Petey the Penguin. If they give Petey a fish, he will point them in the direction of the lost treasure of Atlantis. If they do not give Petey a fish, he will peck at them with his beak.”). Challenge of the Frog Idol has a bit of hex crawling in it.
The adventure path
But seriously, the adventure path is a series of adventures that tell a single story. Some groups like them I suppose.
For real now, what are the features of a good published adventure?
Now that we have gone over the types of adventures, let’s go over the features of a good published adventure in no particular order:
An interesting map
The map must not be strictly linear or just a series of boring corridors and rooms. Some complexity is good! While this is from the Elder Scrolls video game series and not a perfect example, the following chart might be useful to show the difference between somewhat complex and simple maps:
Magnificent magical items and treasure
The magic items should seem otherworldly and mysterious. Do not add a +1 dagger to your dungeon and call it a day. Make it strange somehow. Maybe the dagger is called Bloodseeker and it always points to a vulnerable spot of the wielder’s enemy. When the dagger kills an enemy, all of the blood from the enemy is sucked inside the dagger. Also, make the treasure items better than “a goblet worth 150 gp” or “you find 2D10 electrum pieces”. How about a painting of a peasant woman that is hundreds of years old, but looks just like Mary the Milkmaid back in town. She has no knowledge of this painting and cannot explain why it looks just like her. The eyes of the painting always follow the party’s cleric, yet the painting does not register as magical when a Detect Magic spell is cast on it. The painting is worth 750 gp to a collector in town. But does the party want to sell the painting or investigate the mystery of the painting’s subject?
Why does the party risk life and limb to enter these places? Sure, some people are just good at heart and will always do the right thing. But most will not. Is a legendary treasure in the dungeon? Is there a secret related to a character’s past rumored to exist in the dungeon? In a published adventure, give the party a few good reasons to explore.
Multiple ways to solve a situation
The party does not always need to break out the cudgels and crossbows. A series of forced combats is not a recipe for great gaming. Maybe they can negotiate with faction A of critters in the dungeon to make life difficult for faction B. But perhaps faction B wants the party to steal something from faction A. Heck, the party might double-cross both factions to faction C! If the party does not like any of the factions, slaughtering all the dungeon inhabitants is always an option. Instead of trying to cross a chasm by solving a puzzle, maybe the party could use their ten-foot poles to create a bridge. Try not to force the party into only one solution for issues in the dungeon (unless they make a bunch of bad decisions).
Unlike the other aspects mentioned, this has to do with how the adventure appears on the pages of the PDF file or book. The layout needs to help, not hinder the GM in finding relevant information. The adventure should use the space on the page effectively. This means that the GM must have careful word choice, not just for evocative language but physical space concerns.
What happens to faction A when the party takes action X. What happens to the nearby countryside if the party neglects to make sure that the Ruby Rod of Ruin is not properly destroyed? These kinds of questions can create further adventures, either for you to write or for the GM to create on the fly with the party.
Are there other features I missed? Any adventures that are good examples of these features?
* Generally, I mean adventures published by the big companies. There are plenty of DIY adventures that are terrible. I should know. I wrote one. With the rise of self-publishing and small publishers, the number of adventures out there has never been greater. However, in my “calculations”, I am not counting terrible adventures by self-published authors or small presses