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by Mike on 13 July 2022
Jayme, a patron of Sly Flourish, asks; "I've always ran homebrew adventures, but for the first time, I'm incorporating short published adventures into the campaign. The problem is, I don't really know how to evaluate whether an adventure is good or not just by reading it. Do you have any advice on how to spot problem areas in a published adventure before I run it? And are there any red flags I should keep an eye out for?"
This is an excellent question. With the huge wealth of published material we can harvest for our D&D games, how do we decide good from bad? How do we choose what to spend our valuable time on?
I asked this question out on Twitter and got a number of excellent replies. You can read the Twitter thread here. In this article I'm going to offer a few of my own criteria.
If you're a publisher of D&D material, some of these might seem overly costly or even insurmountable for an independent publisher with limited time and money. I get it. Publishing products with limited time, money, and energy is really hard. That said, you're competing with a lot of products and the time of your customers is equally important. Do your best.
Also, none of these criteria guarantee a great product and many great products may have only some of these criteria. It's an imperfect list. A rough tool for a hard and time-pressed world. Consider these but come up with your own list of criteria as well.
The first thing I ask myself when scanning a product is whether it resonates with me. Do I like the idea? Do I like the theme? Does it speak to me? Do I think it's cool? My own initial emotional connection to a product is going to have a big effect on whether I'm willing to devote more time to get this product to fit into my game and the time I can spend on it. It may be the product's idea. It might be the cover. It might be the first few paragraphs. Whatever it is, it has to grab me quickly, show me what it's about, and convince me it's worth more time. If it is, and I think its cool, I'm willing to put in more work to read it, buy it, and incorporate it into my game.
One thing I look for is whether it's clear to me that the product designer built the product to help DMs. Is this book and its components designed to be easily dropped into a game and easily used by the DM? Is it written with the DM first and foremost in mind? Or is this a vanity product intended to help the author tell us about their world? RPG books are instructions and tools to help DMs and players share their stories and play their games together. They're not to serve as an expression of the author's creative drive. We're busy and we're often overwhelmed. Help me out. Take work off of my plate. Make my game better.
Going hand-in-hand with whether it's built for DMs; can I understand how this product works? If it's an adventure, can I easily understand its structure? Do I know how it's supposed to go and how it's supposed to work? Can I get my hands around it? Do I know how I'll drop it into my game? Overly complex products, especially complex adventures, don't endear me to their merits. I need things I can easily use. Keep it simple.
One thing separating great products from ok or even good products is playtesting. A list of playtesters shows me the product survived first contact with real groups. The bigger the list of playtesters, the more I trust the work. Again, it's not a perfect criteria but I don't know a product that was worse off for being playtested.
Let's face it, we gravitate towards things other people already checked out for us ahead of time. We know amazon star ratings are imperfect but we all instinctively know that it's more likely a 4.5 star product with 1,700 reviews meets our need than a 3.5 star product with five reviews. Crowd-based reviewing isn't great but even having a few recommendations from people we know and trust goes a long way to help us try out a product. Do we know people that have used this product? Did it go well? Do we generally trust their judgement? This helps us save a lot of time.
Does the product have a dedicated editor (that isn't also the writer)? A product with a dedicated editor sets it apart from other amateur work. If someone else spent the time to read through and offer feedback on a product, it's likely better than one that only went through the author themselves. Is the editing good? Can I spot obvious typos, run-on sentences, or other clear signs of poor editing? It's going to have a hard go impressing me if I, a very imperfect reader, can pick out big problems in the prose. Does it follow standard 5e conventions? Excellent editors not versed in D&D might miss the standard nomenclature of 5e. Editors who understand the ins and outs of D&D 5th edition are hard to find and its often obvious which books had such careful editing and which didn't.
Does it have original art? Is the design both pleasing, subtle, and usable? Looks matter when it comes to good products. If I see a product using the same template as others or art that's clearly public domain or stock art, I'm not going to weigh it as heavily as a product with a unique design and commissioned art. I know, this stuff is hard and expensive, but if you're asking for my money and my time, you're competing with products that can have an excellent design and unique art work. It's not the most important thing in the world but it's a clear indicator of the amount of effort (and, let's face it, money) that went into a product.
What does your own list look like? How do you determine a good product from a bad one at first glance? What telltale signs indicate a potential good product from a bad one? Write down your own list, think about it, and help yourself better gauge the content most likely to help you run your games.
Each week I record an episode of the Lazy D&D Talk Show in which I talk about all things D&D. Here are last week's topics with timestamped links to the YouTube video:
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