by Mike Shea on 10 March 2014
This article has been updated from the original written in March 2014.
With the DM's Guild selling previously out of print D&D products, we now have access to thousands of adventures, sourcebooks, and accessories from every previous edition of D&D. While Wizards of the Coast continues to release excellent hardcover adventures designed for the 5th edition of D&D, these older products contain a great wealth of material we can use in our games today. All we need to do is convert them to the current edition of D&D.
In today's article we'll discuss how best to convert products of previous editions and use them in our own game.
It's important to begin by considering what published adventures bring us in the first place. While some DMs like to run published adventures word for word, most of us recognize the value in using published material to augment our own games. Adventures are written less to be used directly and more to inspire our own stories. Published adventures are a series of components we can use how we wish whether it's story ideas, maps, artwork, location descriptions, or encounter ideas. Knowing that published material best serves us as inspiration—often loose inspiration—helps us recognize what is required to convert it to our current game system of choice.
Often the answer to that is "nothing".
When we use previously published material, if we're using it primarily as inspiration, we don't actually have to convert anything. The only areas of an adventure or sourcebook that require conversions are monster stat blocks, difficulty challenge (DC) scores, and any character-focused material. Instead of trying to convert this stuff, we can simply ignore it and use the equivalant material we already have in our fifth edition D&D books.
When we're running a published adventure we'll often find equivalant monsters in the Monster Manual. If not, we can easily reskin a monster in the Monster Manual with the flavor of the monster in the adventure. Sometimes there will be a challenge rating mismatch between one monster and another. We can use our own encounter building guidelines to see if such a challenge is too difficult and adjust as needed.
The important thing is to hang on to any conversion with a loose grip. We don't need to be perfectly accurate to the original source material when converting an old adventure. Our own game sessions will stray way off course from any published adventure anyway, and that's have the fun.
Like the rest of our philosophy when running fifth edition D&D, we can hang on with a loose grip. We can relax and keep some simple tools on hand, like improvised mechanics and monster reskinning, and use them when we need to tweak something in the adventure we want to run.
If you strip out the stat blocks, cut out the crunchy math bits, and retwist the plot and the story to fit your own idea, what exactly do you get from a published adventure? The best value of published adventures are in interesting adventure locations and interesting NPCs. Good adventure locations can be hard to improvise, as is the quality artwork of a great map. It's hard to come up with rich, detailed environments full of fantastic elements. Rooms, chambers, towns, cities, lands, histories, and gods can come alive in the source material we run at our table.
The same is true for NPCs. Published material often includes numerous interesting NPCs that breathe life into your game. It's up to you to determine which of these NPCs may be interesting to your group but don't force it. Even if a published adventure focuses on a key NPC, if that one simply doesn't end up being very interesting to your group, throw it out and focus on the ones they DO find interesting.
With your fantastic adventure locations in hand and your rich NPCs ready to walk the land, it's time to set them in motion. Don't worry about following the plot of an adventure word for word. Use the story of a published adventure as a potential guide and an initial motivation that sets things in motion. Once things are in play, once they are influenced by the actions of the characters, let things go in whatever direction they head. Feel free to move or restructure adventure locations to suit the paths of the characters. Make it a living breathing world.
For the Lazy Dungeon Master, published adventures do the heavy lifting of building out histories, NPCs, and detailed locations. We lazy DMs can use them as a toolkit to make sure we bring a living breathing detailed world to our characters every game session without having to hand-write it all ourselves.
Make published material your own and use them to build a living breathing world.