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Customizing an Adventure: Making Published Modules Your Own

Posted By Scott Martin On April 27, 2009 @ 2:28 am In GMing Advice | 7 Comments

Brcarl asked a couple of questions (1, 2) in the Suggestion Pot about using modules and personalizing them.

I’m currently running a published module (D&D 4e Keep on the Shadowfell), but have at least one player who would like the story to be more personalized toward the PCs. Any suggestions on how to take (often very generalized) published adventures and tweak them to integrate with PC backgrounds?

Also, along the lines of my prior post just above: I have one PC in the group who wants some background integration, but the others seem content to just play along with the story. I’ve offered up some potential hooks to the other players, but they haven’t taken the bait.

How do I satisfy my story-driven player’s gaming desires without boring the other players?

To my mind, your player preferences are a near perfect mix, so let’s look into this. Modules are tricky, because the module writer is doing a lot of work and it doesn’t make sense to redo everything yourself. (If that’s what you liked, you’d probably have created an adventure from scratch.) Here are some questions to consider.

Do you want to follow the module exactly? For my group, I’m happy to use a module as much as I can (to save prep), but don’t feel a need to stick to the module if I come up with something better on the fly. In some situations (such as RPGA games or playtesting) it’s important to stick to the script. If you’re concentrating on providing an experience for discussion– like people comparing how far they made it through the Tomb of Horrors– then you’ll want to stick closer to the written module.

What should the module provide? There are a number of reasons that a GM will pick up a module. One common reason for grabbing a module is that you’re low on prep time. If that’s the case, make sure your changes won’t take a lot of time to patch up. Inspiration is another common reason– and one that encourages reworking to your heart’s content. If you hate specific types of drudgery (stating out monsters, developing balanced encounters, allocating treasure, creating puzzles– whatever), then make sure you’re not creating more of the work that you bought the module to avoid.

Using a Module out of the Box

The first step with a module is to quickly read it through. At this point you don’t need to look for specifics, just read it like an abbreviated story. If you’re using the module for inspiration, bookmark the cool stuff– either mentally, or in your tiny notebook. See if there are any troublesome points– where you just can’t see how anyone will make the mental leap from A to B. (The “leap problem” is more common in storylike plots, than location based [dungeon] plots.) If you notice that it mentions systems or rules that you don’t understand, take the time now, while it’s calm to research them.

Personalizing the Module

At this point you understand the boxed module. Now it’s time to tweak it to fit your group.

If your players gave you backgrounds, read through them for NPCs. Also take a look at their character sheet and notice the “flavor” elements– if they are playing a cleric, which god do they worship? Do they have a masterwork weapon, or a superior set of thieves tools? These bits of flavor make good fodder for personalization.

From Background

The first thing to look for are background matches. Is there a person in the module who matches the role of an NPC in someone’s background? If so, consider having the character (from the background) replace the module’s NPC. Often this is just an issue of changing the name. If there’s a difference in physical description, make that change too. Their interactions with the party probably won’t change much (one innkeeper is often the same as another for overall story purposes), but changing their interaction style based on their history with the PC makes a huge difference.

Now it’s time to look at the bad guys. Look at the list of cults, vendettas, and rivals that were written into the PC backgrounds. Think back to your quick skim of the module– is there a close match for any of the bad guys in the histories? If your Paladin has written up an enmity for Tiamat’s followers, consider changing the Cult of Gruumsh in your module to a Cult of Tiamat. If a PC has a rival, consider adding the PC’s rival to the town and create a connection between the rival and one of the enemy groups.

A good twist for using bad guys is to look at the overall plot of the module and the various involved groups. Consider making one of these groups a cat’s paw for a villain in a PC backstory. To work them into the background, you don’t have to change much at all. Pick the thematically aligned group in the module. When the PCs encounter them, make sure at least one of the foes says something like “Get the blond one” or “Alanora Redcape is mine… you handle the others”. After the battle, place a short note among the dead goblin’s possessions, saying something like “Alanora Redcape is an enemy of mine. Return her ear and this note for a reward. -Z”

From The Sheet

If you don’t have a backstory to work from, you’ll have to work from the character sheet. Just as you did for the character with the backstory above, you’ll rely on coincidence a lot. Because there’s no written backstory, you don’t rely on the player to provide the background– instead, you draw them in with a rich detail here and there.

Items are a good place to start. The smith in town might have a masterwork sword for sale… that has the same maker’s mark as the fighter’s sword. If the fighter asks, it came in with the last caravan from the east. This is a good system for adding a little depth to the world without being boring. Unless the PCs decide to investigate, this takes no time and makes the world richer. If they do investigate, it sounds like they were interested after all…

If you want to add a subplot, the guy in town is the smith who forged the sword… and he’s eager to hear how the fighter got his hands on one of his blades. This is more active and interesting, but it runs the risk of giving that player something he wasn’t looking for. (Since he’s been dodging your hooks all along.) It is good technique for helping players stretch and explore some story driven gaming of their own.

Remember those gaps?

When you read through the adventure, you may have noticed some weak links connecting the module elements. A great way to improve the module (since you’d need to patch this in play anyway) is to figure out what the characters need to get from one point to the next. That’s where you drop in someone from their background, who bridges that gap.

So if you have something going on in two locations, and the clue to get from A to B is awfully weak, consider having the rogue’s espionage teacher hire them to infiltrate (location with clue to B). This can make your world look complex and layered– like you have wheels within wheels. Instead, you’re just using something the players already made get you across the chasm. It’s great when making a player happy also patches the adventure’s weak spot.

Your Turn

Those are a couple of quick examples of how you can personalize a module. I know many of you have extensive experience– with some modules you’re not just spackling over a few holes, you’re plastering the whole edifice. Share some of the best tricks you’ve come up with for turning a generic module into something that matches your group.

About  Scott Martin

Scott is an engineer turned gnome and game store owner. He lies awake at night building intriguing worlds and plotting your character's demise.

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7 Comments To "Customizing an Adventure: Making Published Modules Your Own"

#1 Comment By LesInk On April 27, 2009 @ 9:55 am

One word of warning from past experience. Be careful when you go changing out enemy gods in a module. You’ll then need to check if there are any thematic changes in the descriptions and/or encounters that need to be changed to match. For example, if you are taking out a demon cult for a dragon cult, you will want to change out the description of fresco in room X and maybe make the leader in room Y have a special dragon breath attack instead of demon bloodletting attack. Changes like these need some thinking up front instead of at the last minute.

And, in general, for anyone who wants a plot hook, just ask yourself, “Why is this player going into this part of the module?” If you don’t have an answer, don’t be afraid to remove it from the module, replace it with something else, or possibly even skip it.

I find that story driven and dungeon crawls don’t mix well — usually the dungeon crawls are too long and you can usually chop them down to the exciting main rooms.

#2 Comment By Rafe On April 27, 2009 @ 11:50 am

As you said, Scott: It depends what you want out of buying a module. Personally, I’d be inclined to take it to the bare bones… and then build it back up with all elements that suit the players and what they want. Exclude those things that don’t fit, are filler, or would seem out of sorts. Replace them with similar encounters/ideas that you think do fit.

#3 Comment By Nojo On April 27, 2009 @ 12:07 pm

The 4th edition DMG suggests when running an adventure you didn’t write, add or change an encounter to customize it to one player. Each session change the player, so everyone gets a turn.

You can get a lot of ideas for characters without backgrounds from the class/profession/archetype of the character. Thieves know criminals and lawmen. Mages have schools and rivalries. Fighters have old army buddies. Barbarians have encounters with the civilized scum that are encroaching on their lands. And so on.

And everyone has family, or lack theirof.

Tailor the personalization to the kind of adventure the player in the spot light likes. Ass kickers want combat, but if you make it personal, all the better. Tacticians want to dominate the battlefield, but when the opponent is schooled by an old rival who knows just how the tactician thinks. Story tellers want plot. If you are in a dungeon, introduce an NPC with personality and a connection to the story teller, like a discarded mistress of the bad guy. She doesn’t know his tactics, but she knows his personality.

Last week I did this for my Dark Heresy game and a kick ass type of player. The character was an Arbitrator, (Imperial Police) without a background. Using cop show thinking, I added a run in with a gang leader (and his gang) who had killed the character’s partner. In fact, I inserted that into another combat encounter, making it a three way fight.

When the Arbitrator crushed the skull of the scum who had killed his partner, it was a high point for the campaign for him. The player had never known about this partner until this encounter, but it made sense with the character archetype.

Next game is my Psyker’s turn. His character sheet says he is afraid of bald women in robes. He is about to find out why…

#4 Comment By brcarl On April 27, 2009 @ 1:26 pm

Thanks Scott, and commenters, for your great ideas.

I’ve gone back and reviewed the players’ backgrounds, and already have a few ideas for minor tweaks to NPCs and encounters to integrate them a bit. My “contrivance meter” is pretty sensitive, so I want the hooks to make sense which makes things a bit more difficult for me.

Also, I am using a published module because I lack the time and energy to roll my own. I know most folks here at the Stew are pretty heavy into the customized campaign thing, but when I tried a complete home-brew last year I burned out after a dozen sessions.

Also, the game in question is play-by-post, so it’s a bit challenging for me to read player stereotypes and adjust to that. So far the combats have gotten lots of good involvement, but the role-play interludes seem to drag. I don’t know if that’s because they’re less interesting to the players, or it’s just bad timing, or something else. Sometimes I wish I had web-cam snaps of them reading my posts. :-\

#5 Comment By Scott Martin On April 27, 2009 @ 3:36 pm

@LesInk – You’re very right about making those kinds of switches– it often takes follow through to make sure that whatever you’re switching out isn’t thoroughly tied in.

@Rafe – That’s a fun way to use modules– as a toolbox of interesting parts. It takes a little more time to strip it down and rebuild it, but it does result in a custom scenario after your efforts.

@Nojo – The DMG has a lot of good advice. The Arbitrator example is great– a nice example of adding a scene with serious punch. I hope your Psyker has a good time– that sounds like an interesting reveal.

@brcarl – PbP is an interesting fish; I’ve enjoyed playing in a couple, but have only flopped when trying to run one.

Tripping the contrivance meter is the main drawback to shoving everyone’s NPCs into each adventure, but drawing in one character or element from each character’s background can work, if they’re not all characters. Try having people comment on their items, recognize makers marks, etc., and only include a bigger twist for the one player who is really seeking out this experience.

Good luck. If anyone has personalization snippets brcarl can steal, please share!

#6 Comment By BryanB On April 27, 2009 @ 4:34 pm

I will happily steal.. er I mean borrow NPCs, maps, and ideas for traps, magic items, or NPC objectives. Maps are especially valuable because it can be very time consuming to make one’s own maps.

I’m stealing some stuff to add to the game this week as I type and NO, I can’t say what that stuff is. :D

#7 Comment By Old Man On April 27, 2009 @ 6:27 pm

Hi all,

Like BryanB, I will happily borrow from modules. I primarily like interesting maps especially for towns, keeps, buildings and above ground locations. (I am not a dungeon fan and rarely have traditional “D&D” style clumps of rooms underground.)

I will ponder the plots and see whether they can be glued into my game in some fashion. I did such, with success, with old SPI Dragonquest modules (Palace of Ontocle, Enchanted Woods – great maps/settings and adventure content). Similar success with Harn towns and cities (most excellent maps).

Lastly I will grab the NPCs if they are of interest. They do take work to revisit backgrounds as needed and sometimes revise races/classes/etc. Some (for example Aestus from Blade of Allectus) have remained in game for years.

These days though I find my %own to %bought ratio to be more myself than modules. Perhaps it is an age (of me or campaign) thing. The more complex and developed a game world, the harder a drop-in becomes.

Old Man

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