With my dive into 5th edition this year I've picked up a lot of the current adventure books like Storm King's Thunder, Curse of Strahd, the Elemental Evil One - all of them so far. I've also been looking at ways to integrate some of my favorite adventures from older editions, particularly the ones I've not run in years or for this group of players. When Tales from the Yawning Portal came out it of course made my day because here's a whole string of older adventures converted directly to 5th - that makes it a lot easier if it's a decent conversion. So far so good.
I also started listening to some podcast reviews and discussions on the various new adventures and some of the talk around the Yawning Portal material really had me shaking my head. So this post covers my thoughts on these same issues.
Side note: After all of this research I am even more certain of this: reading the adventure is not the same as playing the adventure, any more than looking at a map of France is the same as actually visiting France. Rulebooks have a similar conundrum in that reading them is not the same as using them to play a game but adventures are even worse in this regard. I've read some that looked amazing and then fell apart in play and I've read some that looked iffy and turned into some great sessions. There are nuances that may only come out in play, plot details that only make sense when run, encounters that get a lot more interesting once they're in play, and NPCs that become much more memorable or important when they hit the table. People dismiss some things as "unplayable" - one of my pet peeves - that I have run and enjoyed. People will laud adventures they've never actually run as "amazing" yet when I tried to run them they were disorganized messes with missing map elements and conflicting information.
If you want a specific example check out some reviews of Pathfinder AP's the month they come out. These are 99% "read-thru" reviews with no actual play experience. Then go look at the Paizo forum for that AP six months or a year after they have been released - you will see pages and pages of corrections, clarifications, alternate approaches, suggestions for improvement - it's night and day.
I'd say the best advice is that if reading through a published adventure gets you fired up then you will usually do what it takes to make it run well, and if it doesn't then you should probably put it back on the shelf.
First up I have to admit it's weird to hear people discussing an old adventure that don't know, for example, whether Against the Giants was a first or second edition adventure. It's not a tremendously important detail but it does tell me they probably picked up the game during 3rd edition and so may not get what earlier adventures were about. They may not remember that in AD&D experience points were based far more heavily on gold pieces than on monster bashing and that makes a notable difference in how adventures were written and played. I don't think that anyone who came in after they were part of the current scene can't have an opinion on them but I wish they would do some research or talk to someone who was running and playing these things back then.
The single biggest complaint I here is that "well there's not a lot of story here, it's really just a dungeon" - thus dismissing the biggest way the game was played for the first 15 or so years it was around. Hey, guess what? We didn't need a writer to give us a story - the "story" is what happens at the table, with the players and their characters, as they go through the dungeon. Typically what they really mean here by "story" is "plot", as in there needs to be some larger plot to be uncovered and stopped for the game to have meaning. You don't need that! The whole conceit of D&D is a group of adventurers and explorers out looking for fortune and glory! You shouldn't need a world-threatening plot (as many newer adventure path type campaigns use) to justify going out on an adventure! Sure some have it and that's fine but not every adventure has to have a plot!
Maybe it's the concept of the sandbox that's been forgotten by some amidst all of the adventure path models and organized play railroads that seem to constitute a lot of what we see discussed online nowadays. The biggest ironic moment for me was when one reviewer commented that "if it's just about the combat you could just go play a computer game" to which I would reply "if it's just about the externally-determined metaplot then you could just go play a computer game.". Most of the 1st edition and Basic adventures are as much about exploration as they are combat. Experiencing a cool environment is as valid a reason to play as following a pre-written plot.
Think of "Isle of Dread" - it's a jungle island full of dinosaurs with a ruined city at the center - do you need some additional reason to explore that? The 3E Savage Tide adventure path included it, added demons, and placed a quest object for the larger campaign in the ruined city. That's all fine and it did work in the context of the AP but in the previous 25 or so years I never had a party express dissatisfaction with the adventure in its original form. In my experience when you hand your players that mostly blank hexmap of the island at least half of the group feels a mandate to fill in the rest of it.
This ... attitude? expectation? even spills over into newer adventures - I heard the same criticism of Storm King's Thunder! There's not enough "story" connecting the different parts of the adventure! This is an adventure that has a background plot that is written out for the DM that explains why the giants are suddenly stirred up and causing trouble. The player side of this begins with multiple attacks on settlements by giants and encounters with wandering giants at a much higher rate than is normal. So the adventure demonstrates the problem in-game, it doesn't write six paragraphs of exposition for the DM to read and that is a feature, not a bug! After wandering the Savage Frontier for a time and experiencing firsthand the ongoing problems the players are pulled into the plot and from there on it's a more linear AP-type run. That means it's a large area sandbox with a lot going on plus a key to a specific "quest" that the players can jump on or the DM can drop in whenever they're ready - that's perfect!
One of the criticisms was that the players won't learn about why this is happening, only the DM knows. So let me ask somewhat ironically - do your players not talk to NPC's? There are multiple points within this adventure where people who do know what is going on are expected to be conversing with the party, not fighting them. This is exactly the kind of conversation that would happen at this point - "OK here's what's happening and if we do X, Y, and Z we can put things back together." As a DM if your player characters never learn what's going on then how are you doing your job? Heck a simple Commune/Legend Lore/Contact Higher Plane type information spell could give basic clues on what's going on if your players think to use it. These kinds of criticisms start to tell me quite a bit about the playstyle of the person raising them, from "how do you even run your games" to "did you really read the adventure?"
I think some of this kind of criticism is a cry for hooks to pull your party into a particular adventure - that's a much simpler issue to solve. I will say first that no one knows your party better than you do so you shouldn't be looking for a lot of outside help there. Most adventures, old and new, include at least a few hook ideas. If you're stuck here are the basics:
- The Push:
- The king commands you to go to the Caves of Evil and make them safe for the people
- You have all been convicted of a crime and your only chance for clemency is to go slay the great dragon Bazamazaran
- Your temple orders you to travel to the Tower of Menace and recover the Staff of Enlightenment
- The Pull:
- The lost mines of Oria-May are know to have been a source of mithril and many magic weapons were crafted there until it was overrun ...
- Denzor the mage built a tower a few miles outside of town and hasn't been seen in years. He was known to have a Staff of the Magi ...
- The famous pirate Big John Platinum has a humongous treasure hoard buried on some island. Sailor Bob here has come across a map that he believes leads to it ...
- The Guilt Trip:
- The village you started the campaign in is being attacked by raiders and needs your help!
- Your NPC girlfriend has been kidnapped!
- The merchant who handles most of your loot-dispersal has been cursed and is wasting away! Who will track down his assailant?
Once you have been playing for a while these kinds of things become second nature. Specific author-suggested ties to a particular adventure are welcome, but hardly necessary. There was also the perhaps most frequent and most honest hook:
"Hey guys I just bought "White Plume Mountain". It looks pretty cool - want to go through it this weekend?"
"Sure - what levels is it for?"
"OK I'll bring my 6th level dwarf fighter/"
We weren't always crafting epic narratives back then - sometimes we were just playing a game. There's no reason that same thing can't happen now.