How to Prepare a Published Adventure to Run at a Convention
Updated: Aug 19, 2019
Specifically DragonCon. Ben and I have been helping run the organized play Adventurers League D&D at DragonCon for five years now. (What is organized play Adventurers League D&D? Click here.) This is the sum of our collective wisdom on the subject.
If you read nothing else but this sentence then this is the take-home message: read the adventure at least a couple of times and create an outline, think critically about how to get it back on track if it goes wrong, consider making your maps ahead of time, and take at least two hours to study the adventure.
Get the Document
The people running the convention will give you access to a PDF of the adventure. Download the PDF to your device. Print as needed. Bring your device or print-out to DragonCon. We have no wifi and the cell service is terrible because there are 80,000 people at DragonCon all trying to get on the network at once.
If you are running off a device, then bring an extension cord and/or an external battery. There is no way to know if there will be power anywhere near your table. Bring tape to tape down your cord so people don't trip over it.
Read the adventure just to get the high-level picture of what's going on. Pay attention to the background, the episode overviews, the bonus objectives, and the flow chart (if it has a flow chart). If the adventure DOESN'T have a flow chart, then create one for it and share it with the other DMs. Figure out what's in each appendix.
Read it again and focus on the details. If you do hardcopy, write notes there. If you don't, then put comments in your PDF or take notes in another file or on paper.
What is the point of each encounter?
How do players move from encounter to encounter?
What decisions do the players have to make? What information do you need to give them to make these decisions?
Highlight NPC names. In the newer adventures, there's a NPC appendix in the back. In the older adventures, the NPC information is usually a sidebar in the encounter where the NPC appears.
Consider what your NPCs look like and sound like. What do they want to happen? What is important to them? If you do voices, then figure out what their voice sounds like. What mannerisms do they have?
Highlight skill checks within the adventure.
Do some critical thinking about what can go wrong. What if they don't solve the puzzle or don't get the clue?
Playing the Pillars
Some newer adventures have "playing the pillars" sections. Some older ones don't. Take the time to consider ways that a party might resolve an encounter through the use of social engineering and roleplay, or through the clever use of items and skills rather than combat. Even in the older adventures, the players should get full rewards for handling encounters through RP or ingenuity.
Figure out (particularly in older adventures) which encounters would be equally or more fun as a roleplaying encounter or a skill/ingenuity encounter rather than a combat encounter. This will also save a lot of time if your adventure looks like it will run long.
You don't know if you're going to get a table of combat-focused players with highly optimized characters or if you're going to get a table of highly dedicated roleplayers whose characters are less min/maxed. Be sure to prep the adventure so that either group would find a way to shine.
Special events (like the Open and the Epic) are special, and may not have this sort of latitude within them.
Time Is A Thing
At a convention, particularly at DragonCon, Time Is A Thing. You only have 4 hours to run the adventure. People need to eat, decompress, relax and get to their next event and every moment you run long you're depriving them of that.
Even if your players say it's okay to go over, it's not. You're essentially holding them hostage and they are frequently too polite to say no the DM, and they don't want to fail the adventure and get no/lesser rewards. YOU also need to eat, decompress, and relax before your next game.
As you do your 2nd readthrough, figure out the halfway point of the adventure. If you aren't at the halfway point when you are halfway through your time, then find a way to jump to the halfway point. Figure out which encounters are necessary to tell the story and have a good time, and which ones you can shorten or skip. If the players can roleplay through or use skills to solve an encounter, it's generally MUCH faster than combat.
Figure out how much time you need for the final encounter. You need to know that 3:15 into your slot, you need to have the boss show up, kick in the door, and have the final encounter.
Leave 15 min at the end of the slot to hand out rewards and deal with the adventure resolution.
If you run over time at DragonCon a room admin will take over your table and hand out rewards and dismiss the players. We've only had to do it a handful of times over the past few years, but we aren't shy about doing it. Please let's not go there.
Maps and Stat Blocks
Go through the maps and monster stat blocks and take notes. Where do the NPCs and PCs enter the map? How smart are the monsters? What's their likely response to the PCs? Are there skill checks needed to move to different areas or accomplish different things? Then write that down on the map page in the adventure so you don't have to flip around to look that up.
Consider drawing your maps before the convention. You can buy wrapping paper with a grid on the back or you could buy a gridded easel pad. You can sketch things out in crayon or marker, then just put post-it notes over the parts the players shouldn't see, then fold it up and take it to the convention with you. Your map won't be 100% accurate. That's fine.
More wrapping paper than you will ever use with 1-inch "cut lines" on the back.
Gridded easel pad
Some adventures can be run "theater of the mind" without a gridded battle map. That's okay too. This can work well for the 2 hr and regular 4 hr events. If you are running a special event check with the captain of that event to see if it's okay to do Theater of the Mind in that event.
Tokens or Minis
Once you've got your maps set, then you'll need tokens of some sort to represent monsters and NPCs. Yes, plastic minis are great, but not practical to haul around DragonCon for some people. Plus you run a chance of them getting lost, dropped, or smashed. Game pawns or tokens are smaller, lighter, and cheap on Amazon. (Just search for "game pawns" or "game tokens".)
Game pawns - you could split this lot with a friend or two for about $8.
Plastic tokens - 250 for $6. You can add a number with a sharpie (that's orc #1 that's orc #2 and so on). This would be enough for 5 or 6 DMs.
Printable paper tokens
These are legal and free at the request of the creators. You'll need to print them out and then cut them out.
What do YOU think?
Do you have some good advice that we missed? What's your method to prepare published adventures? Got any good tips? Leave a message on our website:
Or hit us up on Twitter. @paigeleitman @zhentarimpr