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How to Customize Published Campaign Adventures

by Mike on 27 December 2021

Richard B. a Sly Flourish patron, asks:

Do you have any advice for a fairly new DM about going through a published adventure and making alterations to make it work for the group. I sometimes hear about things needing a fix but have no idea how to do that.

For experienced DMs, it's easy to forget how we go about customizing published adventures. There's a method to our chaotic hacking and slashing of a published adventure, however, and it's worth diving into the details.

This article focuses on larger campaign adventures, like the published hardcover adventures from Wizards of the Coast. Most of this advice is likely overkill for customizing a single-session or short adventure, though some of it still stands.

My friend Sharon offers three great pieces of advice for customizing shorter-run adventures:

  1. Are there mutliple quest-givers before your players reach the heart of the adventure? Cut one of those. You'll never miss 'em.
  2. Cut things that won't make sense for your players: puzzles, riddles, language, ideas, or lore from other adventures. Replace them with stuff your players care about.
  3. Review the loot! There's almost always something you can include that means more to your players than the stuff in the published adventure.

These ideas can work well for longer-run campaign adventures as well.

Nothing Is Sacred

Change anything in a published adventure to suit it to your group. Nothing is sacred. If you generate your own adventure from the inspiration of the cover art alone, you're still doing it right. Whether you only change a few NPCs or a touch of the flow of the adventure or hack it down to a root and rebuild it into a new forest, there's no wrong way if it works for you and your group. There is no honor in running an adventure as written at the expense of the fun of your game.

Change anything in a published adventure to suit you and your group.

Customize the Adventure Around the Characters

One of the most effective ways to customize a campaign adventure is to thoroughly connect it to the characters. There are two ways we can do this:

First, ensure players build characters suited to the campaign during our [session zero]. A good one-page campaign guide like this one for Rime of the Frostmaiden helps players build characters focused on the themes of the campaign.

Second, modify the campaign to suit the characters. We can do this through NPC connections, historical connections, location-based connections and others. Here's a list of ten ways to tie characters to published campaigns:

Sharon's idea of customizing loot is another fantastic way to tie characters to the adventure.

Connecting the characters to the adventure goes a long way to engaging players with the story of a campaign.

Tune Encounters for Pacing and Beats

Published adventures have no idea how the pacing or beats of your game are going to go. You usually have no idea either until you're running it. Regardless of what the published adventure describes, change the number and type of monsters in any given location based on what's fun at the moment.

If the characters just had a big fight against some monsters and the next room has six more of them, feel free to cut them down to one. Oscillate between hard and easy encounters as you see fit. Mix up gameplay types as well. Maybe what appears like a fight is actually a conversation or some other way to bypass the situation.

Always have your hands on the dials.

Add Subquests & Cut What You Don't Like

As you run a published adventure, you're likely to get ideas of your own. Maybe one small throwaway location really grabs you and you want to add a whole subquest around it. Go crazy. Add your own small adventure in the middle if it feels cool to you. This might make the overall adventure longer but, just as we add our own quests, we can cut the parts of the published adventure that we don't dig. Move the MacGuffins around to change up the nature of the campaign if we need. Maybe that vital clue left in the published Medusa's garden fits better in the crypt of the forgotten king we decided to add ourselves.

Adding our Own Stories

As we read the plot of a published campaign, our own mind might wander off and start playing "what if". What if the mind flayers of the Id Ascendent traveled into the Underdark with they're dying elder brain and allied with Orcus to save it? What if the power of the endless night in Icewind Dale was actually caused by a crack in an elven sarcophagus that encased the elder evil Thruun in the bowels of the lost city of Ythryn? What if a githyanki armada was soon headed to Faerun to rid the land of its mind flayer influence?

Sometimes we read a published adventure and are disappointed it isn't something else. Make it something else. Go with your ideas. The adventure is yours now.

Mashup Multiple Adventures

My friend Jeff at the Tome Show loves to take multiple adventures and mash them together. What if you took Waterdeep Dragon Heist, Curse of Strahd, and Out of the Abyss and put their events into one campaign? Now your players have big choices they can make with big changes in the story depending on the path they follow. We needn't mash up whole adventures either. Instead we can take dungeons we like from one adventure, story elements we like from another, and an overland map we like from a third. We can shuffle all sorts of things from multiple adventures together. I wrote more about this in how to mash up Dragon of Icespire Peak and Lost Mine of Phandelver together.

Customized published adventures let us capitalize off of the tremendous investment publishers have put into these published adventures and still run campaigns that are all our own.

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