Although it is perfectly possible to run a published adventure as-written, using the various hooks and plot strands to engage the interest of your players, it is also possible to run something richer. To give the players more engagement with the story than just “a guy in a tavern needs you to do a job”.
Yes, this is easier to do when you’re writing the adventure yourself. However, published adventures offer you the chance to be inspired by someone else’s writing and ideas – especially if, like me, you don’t really have enough time to invent all-new material for the games you’re running.
The objective here is to engage the players more with the game. This works best when important events in their characters’ backgrounds link to the events of the story. To use this technique, you must first read the adventure and pick out important NPCs and places that you think will be good to use: ones that can interact with the player characters more than just “kill on sight”. Then, as the players create their characters, suggest various background elements for them to include that will become relevant later.
The hard part of all of this is remembering that those characters are meant to be important – it’s all-too-easily forgotten, both by the DM and the players! I know I struggle with it. Making reminder notes in the adventure text might be a good idea…
You can see this idea being employed in some of the unique bonds for the Hoard of the Dragon Queen adventure. Major NPCs of the adventure: Leosin, Onthar Frume, Talis and Frulam Mondath appear as potential background elements: people the adventurers know, and have a history with. The significance of these bonds then depends on the DM and the players. Including them doesn’t mean that when you encounter Talis that great role-playing will occur, but it does give the potential that such will happen.
In fact, the bonds of Hoard are mostly a starting point. To be properly significant, the DM and players should expand on the basic ideas before the game starts. Onthar Frume is your mentor? What does that actually mean? How long have you known each other? What’s your relationship like? Do you both serve the Order of the Gauntlet? (And again, especially for the DM, make notes in the relevant part of the adventure. It’s very easy to forget to draw attention to the significant elements, especially when you’re dealing with all the other things you need to run a good adventure!)
Storm King’s Thunder doesn’t set out the bonds like Hoard of the Dragon Queen does. However, it struck me when examining the early part of the adventure, that there’s a hook that requires you to deliver news of a NPC’s death to a town. That’s something that works best if a character in the group has history with that NPC, interacts a little with the NPC during play, and so has a good reason to care when they die. Or perhaps another PC has links to the NPC’s home town which the adventurers must now visit.
Later in the adventure, other NPCs give the players more quests. More potential for previous interactions – with them or with the destinations of the quests. Is there a town in danger? Link a PC to the town, and have them interact with NPCs they care about.
You don’t need to treat every adventure in this way. It would be very difficult to have previous history with NPCs in the land Barovia from Curse of Strahd, for instance. However, allowing the players to have moments where their previous background becomes important? That can provide some nice moments. One only has to see the previous relationship between Kitiara and the adventurers in the Dragonlance Chronicles to see exactly how significant the past relationships can become.