Awhile back, I posted an article covering a number of steps for in-depth preparation a Game Master can do to make published adventures run more smoothly and personalize them. As with all things, folks have all sorts of different learning styles, however, and while that article covered a few, there’s really a lot more ways to break down a published adventure module. Let’s deep-dive into some cool ways to break down an adventure module so you can find the method that works for you, and maximizes your prep-time!
What You Need
Let’s assume you’ve already decided on an adventure module; that alone can be a crazy process, but since it’s all opinion-based, there’s not much I can add to help you there. With the adventure in hand, you have to cover the following:
- Read the adventure. All the way through, unless you know you simply want to focus on a single section (based on reviews or forum posts you read that point you to the part you like and want to run).
- Figure out how much prep time you have, bare minimum.
- Make a checklist of things you have to detail or remember in order to get the adventure up and running in your time-frame from #2.
Let’s talk about that checklist a little more.
Your to-do list — whether it’s on a piece of paper, in an app, or in your head (boy, aren’t you a confident one!) — probably is best covered in our previous article on prepping published adventures. Very quickly (so you don’t have to click over unless you want more detail), it should list things that might answer…
- How do the Player Characters get involved?
- Which sections really stood out to you?
- Which sections might you cut (or if the adventure has lots of forking paths, which ones will you steer the PCs away from because they just didn’t seem that fun to you)?
- Which NPCs do you have to keep track of?
- What plot points should you keep track of in detail?
- What maps do you think you’ll need to make notes on?
This is pretty detail-oriented stuff, so keep in mind that it’s okay to not have answers, or to go in a different direction and cut a ton of stuff, working in your campaign’s existing NPCs or power-struggles. The point here is not to go into great detail, but just have a checklist of stuff you absolutely have to get done in order to get the game going.
Some GMs need copious notes, extra copies of maps, a flowchart, an index of NPCs and what pages they are mentioned. If you’re new, it’s okay to over-prepare a bit (if you’ve got the time) and simply learn what you use and what you don’t. A great way to do that is to make a tick mark (or if electronic, just add an asterisk at the very beginning) on any pages of notes you reference. If you find yourself always referencing your big list of NPCs with page references, well that’s a keeper! If you never refer to your GM copy of a map and simply have the adventure book open to the map page, stop wasting ink on printing those GM copies. Hell, maybe the book’s map just needs a couple post-it notes you add to it and you’re good to go!
Other GMs don’t need lots of notes, or they maybe get overwhelmed by huge reams and binders of loose papers flying around. If you’re a good improvisation artist, keep the checklist small and concentrate on the things you absolutely need handy: maybe it’s just a personalized index of the adventure module that calls out page numbers of stuff you have trouble remembering. Map of Triboar on page 34. List of important NPCs on page 5. Boom, done. Or, maybe you suck at remembering names, so you need that full list of NPCs handy, but that’s it.
If you happen to be the worst of all worlds: you can’t remember anything, huge stacks of notes boggle your mind, and you’re new enough to not really know where to start, consider jettisoning this checklist step. Just dive into taking notes using the below ideas, but build in enough time to walk away from your notes for 24 or even 48 hours. Come back to them refreshed, and see what you spent your time on, because you’re almost guaranteed to see that you did way too much work, but also that certain things really jumped out at you and are helpful. Work from there to reduce note-taking in the future, and to build a checklist you can bring from adventure to adventure so you remain focused and maximize your time.
So you’ve got your checklist. Now you wanna distill the adventure down to its component parts so you aren’t reading every damn word from the book as you’re running it, boring your players to tears and barely keeping NPC names straight. “Was the assassin Velion, or Vornath? One of those was a dragon, right? Or was that a dracolisk? What’s a dracolisk again?”
Before we show off the styles, let’s just clear up something:
Don’t waste your time!
Whatever happens, think about the shortest possible route to getting what you need out of the adventure. This article presupposes you’re going to take notes: some GMs don’t need to, and that’s not wrong, but nor is it necessarily what we all must aspire to. You might take time to figure out your style, but the key is thinking about the steps you are about to take and asking, “Do I really need to spend time on this?”
The best possible tool for you is the internet: go to forums, Facebook Pages and Groups, Google+ Communities, and just start posting on Twitter with hashtags like #DnD or #RPG (or better yet the game’s name or adventure’s title) and ask for advice and tools other people already built. I went nuts creating NPC indexes for Out of the Abyss and Curse of Strahd, and then Wizards of the Coast slapped one right into the opening pages of Storm King’s Thunder. People may think I’m sad now that I can’t get sales from selling an index on Dungeon Masters Guild, but the fact is I’m ecstatic because someone else just did the work I’d need for prepping that module. Saves me hours of work!
Basically, if you can make a list or handout out of it, someone on the internet may already have done so. Save yourself time and pressure and take a peek first.
Onto some note-taking styles!
1. Detailed Flow Chart
Some people like details. They have their own mode of learning or reading, they might like a lot of control over making small (or sweeping) changes, and/or they just don’t grok the thick walls of text that make up most published adventures and their presentation of encounter areas or plot-heavy roleplaying scenes.
As an exercise, compare some text from Expedition to the Barrier Peaks (1980) to Curse of Strahd (2016). The former has each room in its own paragraph that could be 10, 20 or more sentences long with rules and flavor text mixed together. Curse organizes things a bit better, but you still have encounter areas — like just the pool near a Vistani camp — that has 5 paragraphs of information describing the inhabitants, their typical daily schedule, positing what the characters might do with them in hostile or friendly situations, and so on. It’s a lot.
So, if you like your details, have a good amount of time, and maybe even want to make a few minor text changes (add a monster here or there, or change up the description of a throne), but still want to distill things down, you can go encounter-by-encounter and write things out like a flowchart.
1. The Dais Room: Tables, chairs>dias in South corner>pile of bones in front of dais
!1d4 skeletons emerge from pile
Treasure: goblet (250gp); potion of healing in hidden dais compartment (INT/Investigation 15)
Let’s break this down line by line.
- So you’ve got the encounter area (room or location) and a quick list of the stuff the players see or experience on the first line.
- The second line includes any traps, hazards, or monsters in as succinct a way as possible. I use an exclamation (!) to denote a hostile encounter, and you could obviously work in things like a smiley face or asterisk or something for roleplaying encounters and the like.
- A separate line lists any treasure, and notes any rolls for finding it. If there isn’t any, omit the line. Remember: don’t waste your time!
If there was some extra notes, I’d add another line that looks like this:
Development: Once the skeletons are defeated, the door to Room 2 slides open.
Now, this might be a lot of work for a big adventure, but if you have any clue how your players operate and know how to break up your work, you only have to do this for a number of rooms/encounters that’s like 1 or 2 more than what your players will likely hit. You stay ahead of them a bit, just in case, but you also don’t kill 6 or 8 hours converting the whole of Curse of Strahd to this format.
Also, scroll back up the first image in this article. That’s my flowchart mapping style because I’m a lazy player, but once it’s complete, I could probably run The Moathouse chapter of Temple of Elemental Evil off of it without having more than skimmed that adventure. Pretty useful.
Similar to the above is just a different way of formatting the text. That may seem like useless advice, but we’re talking about the presentation of useful information, here, and people read and commit to memory different things in different ways. Perhaps that flowchart style is a little too “tight” or looks like a run-on sentence. Here’s another way to present the same info as a bulleted list:
1. The Dais Room
- Table, chairs, dais
- Pile of bones: 1d4 skeletons
- Treasure: goblet (250gp); potion of healing in hidden dais compartment (INT/Investigation 15)
Information in a vertical, bulleted format may take up more space initially, but you can use columns in a word program to more effectively place more info on a single sheet of paper, so that’s nice. You can also use this or the previous format on post-it notes or index cards and shove them in or near the proper descriptions from the module you’re running, which could be helpful for finding artwork or maps from the book that you want the players to see.
2. Short Form
Another useful tool — also a bit detailed and time-consuming but less so than the previous versions — is a simple list of the really major “mechanical touchpoints,” as I like to call them: location name, monsters/traps, treasure. This is useful if you don’t need all the details of a room (furniture, smells, terrain notes) but want to be able to quickly run through the encounter difficulty math, expected treasure rewards, and any ability/skill checks that the room calls for, as these things set the tone for the type of game you are running.
An example of this method:
1. The Dais Room: ritual room; 1d4 skeletons. Treasure: goblet (250gp); potion of healing in hidden dais compartment (INT/Investigation 15)
You’ll note I simply put “ritual room” after the name, so there’s still some description there. If you like to improv, you could run an entire adventure from this and not miss a beat. Otherwise, just refer to the page in the module and use that for the description (and consider removing any descriptive-only text from the notes to save yourself that much extra time). These notes strictly serve as a quick reference and as a means to checking off various things you may need to prep outside of the adventure proper, such as pulling together monster statblocks, calculating encounter or treasure math, and what not.
3. Collectors Hate Me
Some people buy a book and it’s like this thing that they have to keep in pristine condition and…I’m not that kinda guy. If I’m gonna run something, I’ll pull out the highlighter, some post-it notes, and maybe even a couple differently colored pens or those fine-tip permanent markers (better for writing on glossy pages, but beware as they may bleed through or smudge!).
There are a lot of ways to handle this sort of in-book markup, and it may serve you well to learn your style of note-taking in this manner via study guides for text books.
- How to take notes from a textbook via WikiHow
- Reading your textbooks effectively and efficiently via Dartmouth College
- Reading a textbook for true understanding via Cornell College
Seriously, try these tips if you don’t want to read those links and just want to figure out your own style:
- Highlight only the things that require mechanics from the game to be used.
- Highlight only the descriptive/”fluff” text. (If you do this and #1, note that you’ll be highlighting the entire book, so this is an either/or type of thing!)
- Write in the margins, simply jotting down names (NPC names or Location names) or monster, spell and treasures, and add page reference notations next to them. For example, if the book says “4 skeletons” write “skeletons MM 272” and you’re good to go.
- Use post-it notes to add your own ideas, jot down errata, or for page references (like in #3). You could even use colored post-it notes for different purposes (yellow are monster tactics, white are roleplaying notes), or use those small, thin post-its simply as bookmarks or pointers to important text.
A corollary to this: if you find a certain part of the adventure is going to be referenced over and over and over, you want to make that section accessible. This could mean a bookmark or post-it note with labels for easy navigation, or it could be photocopying a map or statblock or flowchart. Any time there’s a ticking clock or a map, expect to write on it or near it, and thus get it out of the book (or make copies) so that you can do so over and over again without destroying the book.
A note-taking tip to go with that corollary: if you don’t like cheat sheets and all this garbage I’m prattling on about, just photocopy/print the maps or storyline flowcharts, and take notes in shorthand on that copy of the map/chart. At a glance you can see that area A1 had 4 skeletons, B6 has a drider, and B42 has 3 thugs and a bandit captain. This is a great technique for maps where there might be lots of enemies or factions within earshot of any given room, because it tells you who’s nearby and gives you some time to think about how they may react when the players are dropping fireballs next door.
4. Plot Points Only
Speaking of flowcharts, some modules don’t lend themselves to set encounter maps and static rosters of monsters in every room. Consider a plot-points only method of note-taking for these circumstances. Or consider it if you’re the kind of guy who can read an adventure module just fine, but don’t remember why the skeletons in room 4 might have different commands or motives or allegiance from the ghouls in room 6 and the gnolls in room 12.
Plot points can be noted in a number of ways; the level of detail is up to you and your tastes, obviously. But at its simplest, it’s probably a list of major factions or points of opposition and their relationship to one another. You can add locations and other things to a “map” of plot points, creating a web of relationships, like so:
This is just a list of NPCs and their relationships, but you could just as easily swap the names out for factions (The Gnolls, The Zhentarim), and use the lines and relationship descriptions in a manner that better suits that setup.
Dungeon World’s Fronts
Dungeon World uses a thing called Fronts that I write about in just about every other article on this site, and for good reason. It’s a shorthand way to sum up the roster, goals, and most importantly the immediate activities that a faction that opposes the Player Characters are engaged in. If you can’t remember that Room A1 has 4 skeletons and Room A6 has 45 ghouls — or, more importantly, if you find such a static setup ridiculously tedious and unbelievable in the living world that is your campaign — maybe just write the total numbers of enemies, and cross ’em off as the PCs trounce them. Or organize them into set encounter groups: a patrol consists of 2 skeletons and a ghoul, while the elite emergency response team is 6 skeletons, 2 ghouls, and a vampire spawn.
Point is, using Dungeon World’s Fronts puts all the info about a badguy faction at your fingertips, rather than spread over different chapters or encounter areas, or worse, the Adventure Background text, the specific room in which the badguy is found, and the Epilogue. If you hate page-flipping to figure out what the hell an adventure is about, this is a godsend.
Some adventures feature lots of forking paths. There’s two ways to simplify this: a flowchart, or a scene breakdown list.
A flowchart looks like this:
You’ll note it’s got a chapter reference (the name & chapter number) which is effectively a page reference, a Level reference so you know expected challenge ratings, and it shows the forking paths and often notes the who/what/why that motivates which decision the party takes. Whether you use other note-taking methods for individual chapters doesn’t really matter; you do you, ya know? What the flowchart does is figure out the boundaries of what you have to prepare and run, and allows you to provide the illusion of a lot of choices, while still keeping some boundaries, so the players don’t head off to Krynn when you’re planning a campaign on Faerun. Bounded choice saves you time and effort, but gives players a sense of freewill; do it like it’s done here in Storm King’s Thunder or through the Tarokka Deck placement of enemies and treasure in Curse of Strahd, and you’ve got a replayable adventure that changes every time, but still remains within the boundaries of what you’ve prepped.
A scene breakdown is what the Storytelling System uses in its Storytelling Adventure System (S.A.S.). It’s really a high concept of who/what/why as the core of the adventure, and then a number of scenes that each move the story forward, that can often be played in any order. The idea is to create strong intro and then any logical outcomes. The mix-and-match feature of playing them in any order is a bonus for replayability.
Here’s how you do this for published adventures: make a flowchart (as above) or simply list the scenes. It may help to do this as one page per scene, or even one index card (to keep it small and easily manipulated). Then write in the “frame” for the scene: establish who/what/where as the opening of the scene, and then write a single line about what the outcome is, thematically. How does this scene advance the story?
This method is great for when you have a very open-ended adventure module in terms of order-of-events (investigative horror games, especially), or when you like an adventure’s core ideas but maybe have a lot of misgivings about some of the scenes (I have this with like every single AD&D 2nd Edition-era adventure module, where there’s always like 3 scenes out of 10 that just don’t have anything to do with the rest of the plot). You can rearrange the scenes to your liking, using the index cards as random pulls or as things to toss outta the pile when they are completed or when they no longer make sense.
If you’ve got tons of prep-time, this is actually a great method for reducing a dungeoncrawl down to its component atoms. Each room is one card. Rearrange the cards and you get a flowchart-style map, and can easily throw out rooms with bland or dumb encounters (like 1/3 of World’s Largest Dungeon) or to cut rooms that don’t fit your playstyle (say if you don’t like insta-death puzzles but are running anything written by Gary Gygax). You could probably quickly figure out what the best encounters are, and cut all the chaff out, creating a much more compact and fun adventure.
Here’s the kicker: do this with something like Curse of Strahd, concentrating solely on Castle Ravenloft and/or the Amber Temple, and all of a sudden a 6-month, 10+ level campaign can be distilled down to just a couple sessions, or even a single 4-hour one-shot session for Halloween gaming. It’s a great way to get more use out of adventures or individual dungeons/encounters that you might not otherwise get a chance to use in your regular gaming routine.
Save yourself some time by writing only the encounters/rooms/plots that are cool. Don’t prep every single thing in order, but just the stuff that immediately grabs you, and then cut the weaker ones from there. You can turn Curse of Strahd into a one-shot and be fully prepped for it in probably 30 minutes or less, assuming you’ve already read through the adventure once.
5. Indexes & Lists
Sometimes, the only thing you really gotta keep straight is a page reference, or the total number of things (or a list of all the named guys in Location XYZ). Grab a sheet of paper or get ready to use INSERT PAGE BREAK in your favorite word program and start listing stuff.
The most immediately, universally useful lists and indexes people use are:
- NPCs. I’ve made a second career out of creating thoroughly referenced NPC indexes for Out of the Abyss and Curse of Strahd, and then Wizards of the Coast figured out to add a “Dramatis Personae” section to pages 4 and 5 of Storm King’s Thunder. And for good reason. Have you counted the number of named NPCs in Curse of Strahd. Eleventy-billion. For real.
- Major Plots/Factions. Depending on the adventure, there may be several running plots and/or various factions whose loyalties may be all over the place. Remembering who’s tied to what faction and what their goals are is key to making them feel like real organizations of real people who react realistically to the things the players blow up…er, I mean, the things the PCs do in the campaign world. Lists of factions or plots, their primary goal, and roster (see above for Dungeon World’s Fronts!) are very useful.
- Player Characters and Hooks. We’ve said so much about the adventures, but the fact is the Player Characters are the stars of the show. Always! Don’t forget to list hooks for them — check out Dungeon World’s Bonds! — and also note any important stats next to the character’s name (passive Perception and AC are big ones).
To reiterate a point from earlier, some of these lists will work best on a sheet of paper (or many), and others may be small enough to contain on a single index card. If you like the idea of randomly drawing cards to figure out who gets hit by a stray arrow — or which faction reacts first to a stray political maneuver — throw these things on individual index cards and you’ve got a sortable randomizer tool.
The GM Toolbox
Don’t reinvent the wheel. Once you’ve come up with that checklist of stuff to prepare, re-use that when it works for you! Don’t come up with a new checklist every time when you can just add or delete the adventure-specific items while maintaining a list of unchanging things.
Create, or better yet, find existing tools that you can reuse over and over again, and shove them in your GM Binder or in a document you save at the highest-level folder on your computer so you can refer to it time and time again. Huge lists of NPC names, a dozen encounter maps, links to errata or online generators that you use all the time (Donjon and Wizardawn are the best!)…keep these things handy and you don’t have to refer to the adventure’s effectively nameless NPC mooks. The more you can add to your toolbox, the less you have to prep for future adventures.
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