I’ve noticed a strange trend in the TTRPG space lately, one that almost seems at odds with itself: Running official pre-written content. To be clear for those who are not familiar with the term, official pre-written content is any module/adventure put out by the publishers themselves for the role playing game they make. Wizards of the Coast puts out a yearly hardcover book with about 250 pages — enough for a full campaign. Paizo publishes 90 page books monthly in their “Adventure Path” format, which link together in 3 or 6 part mini-series that create a full campaign. This is an alternative to the roots of the game, where each Gamemaster made their own worlds and content, and filled it with custom made adventures.
What I’ve noticed is that it’s simultaneously seen as both “lesser” than homebrewing your own campaign world, yet also too daunting of a challenge to take head on. In a scene where our biggest brand ambassadors (like Matt Mercer from Critical Role or Brennan Lee Mulligan from Dimension 20) are running amazing stories in their own homebrew worlds, people coming to the hobby have started to look at this “completely homegrown” style of game as the pinnacle to strive towards. The idea that any Gamemaster not creating their own worlds, and crafting each week’s adventure tailored to your characters exactly, qualifies as a second rate experience.
I’ve found this to be a narrow minded look at the hobby. Since I jumped headfirst into this space about 4 years ago, I immediately gravitated towards running existing modules. For Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition, I have now run Dragon Heist twice, Ghosts of Saltmarsh once, and Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus twice. I’ve also run my own campaigns where I was makingeach adventure week to week based on the previous events and character choices. In Pathfinder 2e I ran Menace under Otari, and am now in the middle of running Abomination Vaults, with my eyes looking towards Strength of Thousands. I’ve even done the hybrid type of campaign: using established setting books (Like Andrew Kolb’s Neverland) and crafting my own adventures. I’ve tried a lot of this from many different angles, and ultimately what I’ve come to learn is simple.
We are lucky enough to live at a time where there is an entire catalogue of amazing pre-published material at our fingertips coming out every month, and to turn our backs on that resourceis a huge mistake. So, let me make my case as to why you as a GM should stop ignoring this content, and give it a fair chance at your table.
Why Should I Run Somebody Else’s Story?
Simply put: they are likely able to do a better job than you. I know that may be sacrilegious to some of you reading this, but hear me out. The people who work for these companies, and who put this content out, are entire teams of professionals. They all come together, each one a professional at what they contribute to the product. Art, story, pacing and balance… each has somebody behind it that is at the top of the industry in what they do.
That’s really hard to compete with as a singular person. You will have your strengths, but you will also have your weaknesses. Without the collaboration of a team to balance you out, the ability that you could put together as detailed and compelling a narrative as what’s already available seems to come down to one of two things: Being a prodigy, or having a near infinite amount of spare time!
So, don’t look at it as “Somebody else’s story.” Think of it as a curated experience, and then come in and put your own flair on top and make it your own! In that way, you get the best of both worlds: the details of a professional, and the uniqueness that makes your table your own world.
It’s Too Hard To Run Something That Big!
Really, this is what scares a lot of people away –he thought of you needing to memorize an entire book before sitting down to your first session. For 5e, the main hardcover adventures come out about once a year, and contain over 250 pages of content. For Pathfinder 2nd Edition, Paizo is releasing one Adventure Path book a month that link together in either 3 or 6 part stories, each one coming in at around 90 pages. For a new GM, or one who is used to just “winging it,” that seems like an insurmountable amount of things to memorize. Let me reassure you that it’s not necessary to memorize everything! Since I’ve done this quite a few times, let me help you with my approach on how to make this enormous amount of work manageable.
First, simply sit down and give a quick skim read of the material. This doesn’t mean read every page, but generally you want to understand the story. These books include backstory leading up to the adventure, and each chapter will have a summary of what happens during the game as well. This will give you a good sense of the broad strokes of the adventure.
Next, learn the major scenes and plot points that happen. Make sure you know these inside and out. As a rule of thumb, you should be able to explain this to others as if you were giving a summary of a movie or a book to somebody. Once you are at that point, you are ready to start the campaign.
Finally, dig into the details. As you prep for a session, you will start to get a feel for how far ahead the story will progress. Make sure you’re always familiar withthe details before a session. This means reading up the rooms of the dungeon they are about to go in, or brushing up on the NPCs before they have a big lore dump coming. It’s at this stage where you get to put your own personal flair on things. Your style lives in these details, and though you may be running somebody else’s story, it’s these details that make the individual experience your own. Embrace those, and don’t be afraid to change minor things to fit your voice!
A World of Resources
If there’s one thing we love in the TTRPG community, it’s talking about our passions with each other! So don’t be afraid to use those resources. Communities like /r/CurseOfStrahd on Reddit are indispensable for people hoping to run that Module. Discord communities pop up for each major release , full of people running the very same content that you are, solving the same challenges, and wanting to help each other craft the very best experience they can!
With the rise of Actual Plays becoming popular, you will also be able to find other people running the content as well. When I was first getting started, being able to watch somebody else run the same adventure is the #1 thing that allowed me to step behind the screen with confidence and do the same. And it, too, can help you find that confidence. Chances are, you’ll find one online for the book you want to run!
And, for some shameless self promotion, this is precisely the sort of content I’ve been trying to do. We currently run a weekly Live Play of the Pathfinder Adventure Path “The Abomination Vaults” Wednesdays at 7:00 PM PDT. In addition, I also have a series I call “GM Prep” where I focus on doing the exact thing this article talks about: making the overwhelming work of running a published adventure more manageable. It shows some of the behind the scenes work I do in preparing the adventure module that I run. My hope is that, like this article, it will make the content seem more approachable, and help convince somebody else to take up the often underappreciated role as GM and spread the hobby to their game group.Until next time, stay healthy and take care!
Steve is a 5e vet crit fumbling his way through learning Pathfinder! He is the Gamemaster for Recall Knowledge, a group of friends from Long Beach California who have made the transition to online play during the covid era. Pre-Covid, Steve co-ran the Long Beach 5e Meetup group where dozens of fans would meet each week to play face to face Dungeons and Dragons! Way too much of his free time is spent trying to plan new games to run, and spreading his love of the games to others. Find him at @RecallKnowledge on twitter or on Youtube at www.youtube.com/c/RecallKnowledge.
Abomination Vaults plays weekly on Wednesdays, at 7:00 PM Pacific on www.twitch.tv/RecallKnowledge.