Adapting published adventures for your campaign

The Delicious Dungeoneers, the group I DM for, is reaching the pinnacle of the Lost Mines of Phandelver, the official published adventure in the starter pack for D&D. They’ve elected to continue with their characters into a new adventure and I wanted to explore some of the other published adventures. I gave them a vague question of what sort of BBEG (Big Bad Evil Guy) they wanted next. They chose dragons, so I chose Hoard of the Dragon Queen to continue their story.

Hoard of the Dragon Queen, or HotDQ, is an adventure meant to be started at level 1. However, my players will be level 6 by the time they get into the next chapter of their story. I now have to adapt the next adventure to dovetail nicely into their previous one.

For a new DM, this might sound like a monumental task. There are many things to consider when you are adapting an adventure to fit your group. I will share what I did to make sure my players progress on pace with the adventure and still make it fun and engaging for them.

Study the adventure

The first thing a DM should do is read the adventure at least once. Get the overall pacing and make note of the big plot points. These plot points must occur in order for the story to make sense, so this is a good place to start the adaptation. Identifying these points will make it easier to pace the adventure by spacing out the big battles more evenly. Take note of pivotal NPCs as well and make sure you understand their individual progressions so you don’t suddenly surprise the group with a key NPC when they should’ve met this person three sessions ago.

Location, Location, Location

HotDQ starts in the small village of Greenest, far south of Waterdeep and Baldur’s Gate. My group currently resides in Phandalin, which is much closer north to Neverwinter. This means that I simply have to stage the events and NPCs important to the story in Phandalin instead. This is a relatively easy adaptation, but not all locations can be adapted so easily.

If you have a location that is not relevant to your group but is included in the adventure, you may have to do some DM gymnastics to get them there. This can be accomplished by setting a goal they have in the new location instead of where you initially wanted them to go. Or perhaps you have a key NPC reside in the new location. This may seem like railroading, but the choice to pursue that goal is ultimately up to the party. If they don’t go to this place they may miss a part of the story, but not all groups manage to hit all the significant plot points in every adventure. Your job as a DM is to make the paths coherent,relevant, and available. The choice to take those paths belongs to the players.

Adapting Combat Encounters

If the adventure you’re running is meant for a certain range of character levels and your players have surpassed that range, combat encounters that are run as written are going to be a cake walk. Creatures are going to be much lower level than your players, so it is up to you, the DM, to exercise one of the most diabolical but useful tools in your arsenal: fudging numbers. Give the creatures more hit points. Raise their AC. Make their attacks do more damage. Add more creatures. These are all within your right as a DM to make your encounters more challenging.

If you do fudge the numbers, keep in mind the skills and effectiveness of your players. You don’t want to make an encounter incredibly unbalanced in favor of the enemies, either. Check your players average damage, their AC’s, the damage done by their spells, and their hit points. You don’t want the creatures to one-shot them, but you do want your players to feel that sense of fear that these creatures are going to kick their butts.

Tie in Character Backstories

One of the harder things to do in any campaign is to make the story, published or not, personal for the players and their characters. This is usually accomplished by weaving the backstories of your characters into the narrative. This gives the players a way to emotionally connect with your story than just going through the motions of travel, talking to NPCs, and combat.

Read over your player’s established backstories and look for similarities in them with your published adventure. Is there an NPC in the adventure you could swap out to be a person in one of the backstories? Can you have the party happen upon a place in the character’s backstory on their way to their main story goal? Are there themes of the published adventure that are shared with the character’s backstory that you can emphasize along the way? All of these are great ways to make your players invest in the narrative and care about the outcomes.

HotDQ looks like a great adventure, and I’m excited to run it. I’ve already gone through and made myself a narrative map detailing how I need to adapt the story as written to fit my campaign. Thankfully, it seems the first three or so chapters needed to be adapted and the rest can be played as written. I’ve even managed to work in some guest stars I’m excited to introduce.

Hopefully, this advice will help you with adapting your adventure. It takes some time and imagination, but it is so worth the effort when your players become invested in your story and are eager to see it through. Just keep the changes relevant, logical, and coherent. Try not to take too many stretches, as doing so might break the immersion. Study the adventure thoroughly, take lots of notes, and you’ll be well prepared to make the next chapter of your campaign fun and exciting for your players.