Running published adventures is a great way to play D&D without having to spend countless hours worldbuilding and designing an adventure from scratch.
What’s more, there are tons of great adventures (officially published or otherwise) out there.
But it’s not an uncommon issue for DMs to buy an adventure module and then find themselves just kind of staring at it.
“What now?” they might think! At first glance, they might think they’ve traded one problem for another…
Today we’re going over how to prep and run published adventure modules for D&D 5e!
Tips For Running Published D&D Adventures
Every adventure is going to be at least a little different. By their very nature, some will require more work from the DM than others.
This might manifest as extra preparation needed for most sessions or it might just have more moving parts for the DM to manage while running the game.
If you’re a newer DM or just want an adventure module that will require less of a time investment to run, I’d recommend checking out my article that covers the best adventures for new players.
In either case, this my typical flow (and best practices) for running published adventure modules.
Read the Module Ahead of Time
First things first: you need to read the adventure.
That said, you don’t necessarily have to read every word. It might sound counterintuitive, but skimming is just fine for the most part.
Skim the book cover to cover, but make notes of key moments in the adventure. You should get a good sense of the adventure’s “flow” and see how it connects from chapter to chapter.
We’ll go into more detail on this in a moment, but pay extra attention to the hooks for starting the adventure!
The goal here is that you should know what the “pitch” of the adventure is. That is, you should be able to quickly and clearly answer a few key questions about the adventure in a way that works like an “elevator pitch” to the group.
The key questions you should be able to answer are:
- What type of adventure is this? (Combat heavy, Dungeon Crawl, Intrigue, etc)
- Are there certain themes/genres in the campaign? (Horror, Classic Fantasy, Exploration)
- Is there a specific tone to the adventure? (Casual, scary, humorous, heavy, light-hearted)
- What types of characters work for this adventure?
- Is there a focus on a specific type of monster/encounter? (Undead, Fey, Abberations, Elementals, etc.)
- Are there any specific “buy-ins” needed from the players for this to work?
If you can answer these questions, you’ll be in a much better position to run your group’s Session Zero. (Trust me, you should always be having a Session Zero to align the group’s expectations.)
Related: Running a Session Zero (and Why It Matters So Much!)
What Not To Skim
The biggest things that you absolutely don’t want to skim are right at the front of most adventure modules.
More often than not, these sections are filled with important information and lore that you will need to know to be an effective DM.
You’ll usually find a section that gives you a summary of the adventure and a general overview of what lies ahead. Many (but not all) of the official adventure modules for 5e also include flowcharts which can be very helpful.
Don’t ignore the lore/backstory in these sections. There’s useful information here that will help you know how to play the various NPCs, understand motivations, and help your players make characters that work within the story.
If a particular mechanic is important to running the adventure, it will also commonly be detailed in these early pages. Similarly, you’ll often find useful tips for running the specific adventure here as well.
Many of the more recent adventure modules have also been including lists of important NPCs as well as a pronunciation guide towards the front of the book. In addition to helping you not stumble over character names, it also gives you a glance at what NPCs you might need to pay some extra attention to.
Understand Core Themes of the Adventure
Every adventure is going to carry certain core themes. When you understand these, it becomes easier to set the right tone at the table as well as adapt when things start to deviate from the book’s expectations.
Take my favorite 5e adventure,
When my group found themselves making decisions that moved the story away from what’s written in the book, it became easier to homebrew elements to our story that got things back on track while maintaining the same themes so it feels natural. The immersion wasn’t broken and the story took on new dimensions that was unique to our specific group.
Understanding the adventure’s core themes will help you run the game better: both what’s printed in the book and what you have to come up with yourself.
The kick-off is arguably the most important part of any adventure. After all, it really sets the tone and pace for what’s to come! To really nail this, you need to have a solid hook right from the very beginning.
A good hook should answer three questions:
- Who are the characters?
- What is the call to adventure for them?
- Why should they care?
Most adventures will include at least a few ideas for hooks that you can use. If none of those work quite as well as you need, you can certainly make your own. If you understand the themes of the adventure as we discussed in the last section, this should be pretty easy.
Plus, it lets the players know how to come up with their characters’ backstories. Giving them a lot of space to be creative with their character’s background while moving towards them taking the plot hook helps keep things on track.
You’ll also have less story-weaving to do as the DM to get the party together when the adventure starts!
Note that you don’t need to sell these story hooks terribly hard. After all, everyone wants to play D&D, right? In fact, the best hooks are those that are interesting enough that you don’t really even need to sell the party on the idea!
I feel like going over all the finer points in kicking off a campaign could easily be its own article. I want to keep this article easy to digest, so if you’d be interested in an article that’s all about crafting a killer kick-off for your adventures, let me know in the comments!
Break Your Prep Work Down
Now we get to the real meat and potatoes of running published adventures: the prep work!
If you’re trying to prep the entire adventure in one swoop, you’re setting yourself up for failure. It’s way too much information and there will be too many variables based on players’ choices.
Next thing you know, you will find yourself becoming a “railroading DM” if only to preserve the literal hours (or days!) of prep work that you’ve done. That’s understandable but it doesn’t make it fun.
The best way to avoid this very common pitfall is to break your prep work down.
In each chapter, who are the main NPCs that the party can encounter? What are their motivations and personalities? What quests can the party potentially pick up and how does this further the chapter towards the next?
If you’re breaking your prep down by chapter, you’ll find it much easier to manage.
Even still, it’s very rare that a group will clear an entire chapter in a single session. Do your chapter prep work when the party is going to be starting the chapter in the next game session. From there, you can focus your weekly (or however often your group plays) prep work on what you expect the party to do within that chapter.
If a session ends where the party can go multiple different directions, don’t be afraid to ask the players out-of-game what they want to do next game.
“Are you all wanting to take on the goblins next week or would you rather focus on the bandits first?”
This lets you focus your time towards where the group is wanting to go. Rather than splitting your attention to prep two different encounters, you can focus on making the direction they choose as epic as possible!
Not only is this more respectful of everyone’s time (especially your own), but it really helps to build excitement for the next game.
Nip, Tuck, Cut, and Paste
Don’t forget: published adventure or not, this is YOUR GROUP’S story.
The adventure itself works as a guideline (or Red Thread) for the story. It gives the metaphorical “dots” but it’s up to you and your group to connect them in a way that is fun and enjoyable for the table.
Instead of viewing deviations from how a module might expect a part of the story to go as a bad thing, consider that this is one of the key strengths to what makes D&D so fun!
Players aren’t there to rehearse lines for a play, they want to play the game and know that their decisions have impact on the story!
With that said…
When you’re prepping, there are bound to be certain bits within the adventure that don’t necessarily fit your group. This could be that they don’t fit your group’s type of fun or that they maybe just don’t work given the party’s motivations.
For sections like this, you’ve got four options: Nip, Tuck, Cut, or Paste.
Let me explain…
There are bound to be some elements within an adventure that can become a slog.
Sometimes that’s the specific challenge of a section in the adventure. Trudging through a large, infested swamp or bushwacking your way through a jungle are meant to test the party’s endurance.
However, other times slogs can just feel tedious. Chains of fetch quests and escort missions particularly often fall victim to this.
For slogs that are just tedious “busy work” that don’t add to the story, look for ways to shorten it.
If it’s important enough that you can’t just cut it entirely but don’t want to spend hours subjecting the group to something that’s not engaging/fun, look for ways that you can get the group from point A to point B quicker.
Using what I call the “tuck” approach, you’re centralizing the party’s objectives to where they’re going.
This will usually take a bit of subtle manipulation on your part as the DM. If the party is going to the ruins of the old town to investigate a haunting but you know that there are two other quests there, try to subtly nudge your players towards “discovering” those quests.
Otherwise, the group might find themselves going back two more times. It gets boring with nothing particularly new or exciting to add to the same location as they keep having to return if they want the quest rewards.
Maybe the party is told about the haunting by an NPC. “You know,” the NPC says, “Felix at the library was saying the haunting might have something to do with some kind of cursed item. It might be worth checking with him about that?”
In this example, it’s a natural way to introduce another quest for the location that the party is already going.
If you’ve done your prep work like we talked about, you should have no trouble doing this.
If there’s a section of the adventure that just doesn’t work for your group, you can cut it out.
However, you want to keep a type of surgical mindset when you’re looking to cut parts of the adventure. Much like surgery, you don’t want to make cuts without considering what those cuts will affect!
How does this part of the adventure not being there affect other parts of the story?
Will you need to rebalance other encounters, change certain NPC motivations, or homebrew other quest locations?
In most cases, cutting won’t be necessary. You can usually “nip” or “tuck” your way around parts of the adventure that just don’t work for your group for one reason or another.
If you must cut a section, be prepared to have a plan to prevent there from being a plot-sized hole in the story.
Sometimes you won’t need to do much of anything after cutting a section. If you’ve read ahead and made notes, you should have a good sense of if something can be safely cut.
A common example is the infamous Death House in Curse of Strahd. While I love it, there are many who absolutely despise it and cut it out every time they’re running that adventure. Nevertheless, cutting the Death House really doesn’t have much of an affect on the rest of the story.
For things that need to be replaced after cutting them, we have the final option…
The paste option is pretty straightforward. With this, you’re adding in homebrew or elements from some other source that you think will add to the experience.
Whether you’re looking to paste in something to replace a “cut” or just simply think it would be interesting, this is one of the best things about tabletop gaming. You can freely add things for the party to do!
Maybe you got an idea for a quest or dungeon that would fit your game and think your players would enjoy it. Perhaps you’re wanting to mix things up a bit and want to paste in a standalone adventure or scene from a different adventure.
For example, I usually “paste” in small one-shot adventures themed around certain real-life holidays for my group.
To celebrate Valentine’s Day, the party went to a concert/rave and thwarted a Fey kidnapping scheme (while also engaging in a good old-fashioned dance battle!) You can read more about that in my Valentine’s Day Storytime here.
Using plenty of paste is a surefire way of knowing that your group is truly making the adventure their own!
Gather Your Materials
When doing your session prep, consider what you will need to run that section of the adventure. This could be maps, minis, extra notes, etc.
I’ll try to keep some shorthand notes of important things handy. This might be some scribbles on an index card or (more commonly) readily available via OneNote.
On a related note, if you prefer keeping your notes together digitally, I would HIGHLY recommend picking up a Rocketbook. It’s become an essential part of my weekly DM prep routine and helps someone as chronically disorganized as me keep my notes nice and tidy!
If you know the party is heading into a specific dungeon, spending some extra time before the game starts to prepare the space is well worth it. This keeps the game moving and helps you become intimately familiar with what the party will be encountering as you build it.
Related: Reviewing My Favorite Dungeon Terrain
Gathering all of the materials you need to run the session in advance will help things go smoothly. For any questions or needs, you should already have something ready to go.
Lastly, just follow through on what you’ve prepared.
This is the easiest part of running published adventures. If you’ve done your prep, there’s enough information in the adventure to carry you through the session.
The biggest advantage of running published adventures is that you don’t necessarily need to fly by the seat of your pants. These are great adventures just begging to be played!
By spending some time to prepare for each game while keeping the overall story in mind you’re able to create a great experience for your players. Because you did the heavy lifting on the front end with your session prep, you can now focus your energy towards really bringing the adventure alive at the table.
Though there are a couple of points that need to be made about this step…
Don’t fall into the trap of overpreparing to the point where you start railroading!
A key skill for any DM is flexibility. Whether consciously or otherwise, players tend to derail even the best-laid plans. Instead of fighting that, accept that that’s the nature of a game that relies so heavily on player choice.
As I mentioned earlier, there’s no harm in asking/clarifying what the party wants to do next session. That helps you know what to prep and builds excitement/anticipation for them.
But if you’ve heavily planned for the party to take a certain course of action only for them to do the complete opposite, you want to be able to adapt.
You might have planned for them to take quests from an NPC only for them to think he’s a jerk and completely ignore him. That’s fine! Find some other way to guide them towards the quests!
As the proverb goes, “if you don’t bend, you break.” This is equally true for Dungeon Masters who don’t stay flexible!
Keep it Personal!
On a related note, there’s a certain tendency for DMs to not deviate from the adventure book. One way or another, these DMs are going to have the game go EXACTLY as the book expects.
The thing is: this is ultimately your group’s story. There are going to be experiences within the adventure that vary from group to group.
You want to really make it a point to tie the players’ characters into the story. Give them important moments within the story where they can really be in the spotlight. It’s not just “the party on an adventure” it’s specifically THEIR adventure.
After all, that’s part of the fun, right? A dozen groups can all play something like
This goes right back to the Nip, Tuck, Cut, and Paste devices from earlier. As the DM, you’re the intermediary between the “dots” the adventure module provides and how your group connects them.
You Might Also Like: Overcoming Imposter Syndrome for DMs
One of the best things about running officially published adventure modules is that there are whole communities dedicated to them.
Whatever the specific module you’re running, there are groups on sites like Facebook and Reddit dedicated solely for those who are DM-ing these adventures.
There you can get new ideas, ask for feedback on how you handled certain situations, and more.
Of course, be sure that you’re also helping other members of the community as well. You will almost certainly have tips that will help other DMs who are running the adventure!
With the popularity of streaming D&D games these days, you can probably even find videos of other groups playing the same adventure.
You don’t have to run things as a carbon copy of what that group is doing, but it can give you some ideas for plot devices or points where things might deviate from what the book has planned!
Conclusion – Running Published D&D Adventures
I absolutely love worldbuilding and homebrewing things for my games, but it can be incredibly time consuming. It’s just not always a feasible option.
Thankfully, there’s such a wide collection of official adventures for D&D 5e that you are certain to find something that will interest you and your group.
If you spend the time prepping and really understanding the adventure module, you’ll find most of them incredibly easy to run.
For those who want to throw some dice and play D&D without having to become the next Matt Mercer, running published adventure modules is the way to go!
By the way, I’d recommend also checking out my list of the best books that EVERY Dungeon Master needs to read!
Got tips or questions about running adventure modules? Let’s chat in the comments!
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