by Mike Shea on 1 August 2016
As long as there have been published Dungeons & Dragons adventures, there have been debates over whether we're better off running published adventures or running our own homebrew adventures. There are lots of good reasons for both options covered extensively in other articles across the net.
The truth, of course, is run what you love. Do you love running published adventures? Go forth. Do you love writing your own. Dive in!
Today, however, we're going to look running published adventures from a different angle.
Let's start with some numbers. How much money have we invested in our home campaigns? If we quantify our effort at the industry rate of six cents a word, how much would we value what we've put together? Now look at a published adventure like Curse of Strahd or Out of the Abyss. How much do you think it cost to produce those? I'd bet it's deep into five figures to make a book like that. Editing and writing alone at the industry rate for a book that size is about $20,000. That doesn't include artwork, maps, development, or page design.
Look at the number of people involved on the copyright page. Look at the production value. Look how much playtesting went on for those adventures. I asked industry D&D veteran designer and creator of Shadow of the Demon Lord, Robert Schwalb, how much something like a published adventure costs to produce and his response was, I quote, "a whole fucking lot". Let's throw a ballpark number out here and say it costs $50,000 to build an adventure, and I wouldn't be surprised if it actually cost a lot more.
Whatever the cost, published adventures come certainly cost way more to make than we can afford to spend on our home adventures.
Lets look at the economics another way. How much would you value the work you put into your own homebrew adventure or campaign? If someone did pay you six cents a word, how much would you have made on it? Is it more than $50? That's the equivalent of eight hundred words—about half the length of this very article you read now. If you put any real time into building out your own homebrew adventure or campaign, you probably put ten times as much as that into it. Maybe one hundred times. I bet a lot of DMs out there have 50,000 words worth of homebrew campaigns and settings sitting on hard drives. That's worth about three grand if you were getting paid for it.
How much does a big published adventure cost to us? About $30 to $50 depending on where you get it. That's for a roughly 175,000 word adventure.
So one way to think about it is that we're getting a $50,000 adventure for $50. How can we compete with that?
Assuming we're looking at a published adventure set in a game world, and most of them are, we can also capitalize off of the world in which it is set. Just like the economics of the adventure itself, think about the value we get when we set a game in a well published world. Granted, a lot of fantastic people don't care much for the Forgotten Realms, and that's fine. We all have our own tastes.
Think about all of the material that exists for the Realms, though. That setting is almost 40 years old. There are literally millions and millions of words written about the Forgotten Realms we can use. There's almost nothing at all "forgotten" about the Forgotten Realms. We have Forgotten Realms supplements coming out of our ears and each one of them has that same value we calculated above. About 1000:1 or more.
Millions of dollars has been spent putting together the Forgotten Realms. How much has been spent on our own setting?
Many of our players are also already invested in these worlds. They may have read the novels or played D&D games in these game worlds already. It makes people feel good when their knowledge is useful and it can save us a lot of time and energy when much of the world is already in their heads to begin with.
Some DMs find this intimidating. What if our players know more about the world than we do? What if we make a mistake? There's a way to flip this around in a few ways to turn it to our advantage. First, if our players know more about the world, they can help us describe it. We can use what they know to form more focused adventures. Players experienced in our game's world can become co-DMs of sorts, filling in blanks with their knowledge and experience. We just have to know how to use it.
Second, we can make it clear that the world is forked. Some pieces of history might have changed in our campaign. It is better if these forks came from the group rather than the DM personally. For example, if you ran Rise of Tiamat and Tiamat actually won, the Sword Coast is a very different place than it would be if she lost. In this case, your group knows the difference and why it happened that way.
Capitalizing off of the experience our players have of our game's world is a great way to learn to relax, let go, and let the whole group partake in the telling of a grand tale. It's some higher-level DM magic, but it's very good magic indeed.
While discussing this topic on Twitter, I definitely saw differences of opinion. Some people love published adventures and settings. Others couldn't care less. One of the angles this latter group took is whether the production value of an adventure actually matters to the table. That's a worthy consideration. Does the art, layout, or maps of a published adventure actually make it better when we run it at the table? Do players care? They don't get to see a lot of that artwork unless we show it to them and even then it's mostly glimpses.
Ultimately, until the Id DM does a 10,000 person scientific exploration of the use and impact of published adventures, we won't really know how much more impact a published adventure has over a homebrewed adventure. We'll all make that choice for ourselves.
There are a couple of unarguable facts about published adventures, though. First, hundreds of groups likely play them out, which means we're sharing a larger story with a larger group than just the four to six people at our table. Second, these adventures are, most often, heavily playtested—an advantage our home games rarely, if ever, receive.
Tied to this discussion of the impact of published versus homebrewed adventures comes the clear truth that a good game needs a good DM, regardless of source of the adventure. Good, solid, well-published adventures won't run themselves. They need good DMs to bring them to life. The same is true for homebrew adventures. The quality of the DM, along with the quality of the players, will determine home much fun people have at the table and this is likely independent from whether it is a homebrew or published adventure. Thus, we can safely set it aside for the discussion of the actual value of a published adventure. Let us assume we have good DMs running them and move on.
The secret of published adventures is that we don't have to, nor should we, run them as written. We get the best leverage from published adventures when we take what we love, add other stuff we love, remove things we DON'T love, and then let the story flow organically.
There isn't an adventure writer I know of who would be sad to hear that DMs twisted the writer's work to fit the story at the DM's table. We've talked about this before in Running Published Adventures. In this sense, we take a published adventure and we turn it into our own home campaign. We get all of the production value of the published adventure with the freedom of our own table's unique campaign. It's the best of both worlds.
"I don't want to belong to any club that will accept people like me as a member." - Groucho Marx
The time we and our players spend together playing D&D is precious. The difficulty of squeezing time out of everyone's lives for us to get together is huge. When we manage to do it, we owe it to all of us to run the best game we can run in that time.
Does that best game come from the pile of notes we have about our own game world or does it come from the polished pages of a published adventure? Again, we probably have many differing opinions on this but it is highly unlikely that we've put the same amount of energy and resources into our own world as companies like Paizo, Pelgrane, or Wizards of the Coast have put into their own published adventures. There's a lot of power in those published adventures. All we have to do is take it.