by Mike Shea on 19 February 2018
We spend more than just our money when we buy a D&D 5e hardback adventure, we spend our time and energy on it as well. Unlike the 16 and 32 page adventures of old, these hefty tomes often include 256 pages of material. Reading, studying, understanding, and preparing such an adventure takes considerable time.
The way of the lazy dungeon master is about spending our time and energy on the parts of our game that matter the most. I argue that the time we spend reading published adventures before we run them offers us a good return for our time and energy spent. Every one of these published adventures states that we read them all the way through before we run them and it is advice well heeded.
According to a poll I ran on Twitter and some continuing open discussion, slightly more than half of DMs read their adventures all the way through before they run it, so this idea isn't foreign to many. Others, however, choose to give it a good skim read and then dive deep into whatever section of the adventure they're about to run next. This is also a fine way to go.
While reading a big published adventure offers many values, we can tweak how we read published adventures to get the most value for our time.
We might each have our ideal way to read through a published adventure and if it works for us then it works. This article, based on about 200 responses to discussions on the topic, offers one way we might get the most out of our time spent digesting a published adventure.
When we first sit down with a published adventure, we might start with the introduction so we know what the adventure is actually about. This gives us a high-level understanding of what we're going to expect from the adventure.
We can also give the whole book a nice big skim-read. This takes longer but helps us really understand what we're going to get into. Which parts of the adventure are linear? Which parts are big sandboxes? What catches our eye? Which parts don't seem to resonate with us?
The skim-read helps us understand the structure of the adventure. We know what we're getting into. We don't yet understand the whole adventure. We've missed lots of important details that will matter when we run it but this skim helps us know where to look when we start to run it.
Some adventures, like Storm King's Thunder, show us what the flow of the adventure is like, although in the case of Storm King's Thunder, the actual flow of the adventure will likely be more complicated when we run it. Whether the adventure includes a flowchart of the story or not, it helps us to outline our own. Where does the adventure start? How do the big parts flow together? Where are the major decision points? What leads the characters to the end?
Many times, with sandbox-style adventures like Out of the Abyss and Tomb of Annihilation our own flowchart will have big clouds in the middle filled with a plethora of possible decision points. We'll have to eventually fill out these options but maybe not until the characters get closer to them. We will want to know, however, what major components lead to the end of the adventure and what initial options we want to expose to the characters early on. Which guides, for example, we focus on in the beginning of Tomb of Annihilation will have a big effect on the game itself.
D&D hardback published adventures all tend to miss one important aid that helps us run these adventures: a connection map. When characters go through the story of the adventure, they follow one of a number of potential threads that weave through the whole adventure. These threads connect NPCs, locations, and story hooks all throughout the adventure. When we're reading the adventure, it helps if we know which NPCs could lead or direct the characters to a new location and who or what at that location can lead to the next set of places. These connections aren't linear and there may be a lot of them. Depending on which pieces of a published adventure catch our fancy when we read it, we may want to figure out what threads can lead there.
We don't need a big FBI wall map of people's mugshots tied together with yarn but it can help if we jot down the places we like and the things that can lead characters to those places.
At this point we have a good understanding of the ways the adventure may play out. Now we can take a deeper read into the whole book. We don't necessarily need to read every room description in every location but we should have a good understanding of the main moving parts in every chapter of the adventure. We'll pick up things we would normally have missed on a higher-level skim read. We'll begin to get a better understanding about which parts of the adventure we love and which parts we want to skip.
Once we actually start running the adventure, we can dive deep into the next chapter we're going to actually run. During our skim-read we may have skipped room descriptions and details of the locations throughout the adventure. Now it's time for us to read every word so we can understand what happens and what may happen as the characters explore the next location. The more time we spend here, the better we'll run it at the table. Granted, many parts of a published adventure may go out the window when it meets the drives and actions of the characters, but if things do head into the book, we're ready for it.
Though we can get away with a healthy skim, reading through a whole published adventure offers numerous advantages. It helps us when the characters take a left turn we didn't expect. It helps us feel confident when things begin to move forward and we know where they're likely to move. It makes us see the whole big picture instead of just what's in front of us. It let's us foreshadow events early on in the adventure that may not come to pass for weeks or months.
Every D&D 5e published hardback adventure suggests that you read the whole adventure through and that's good advice. Though it's far from lazy, there's a lot to be gained by spending the time to read what we plan to run.