The Inquisition: Why Modules Suck

This sucks, too. Thanks to flickr user kirinqueen. CC BY-SA 2.0

This is the first in a two-part (at least) series about running published modules. Next week we’ll talk about why modules are awesome.

Fair warning: this week’s post was consumed by internet hobgoblins, so I’m writing a bit more off the cuff than usual. It’s been a heck of a week for our fearless leader, so cut him some slack and show your appreciation for all the great things he does. We really wouldn’t be here without him.

Anyhow, onto this week’s topic: Modules Suck.

What is a Module? In the olden days of DnD, TSR published pre-scripted and pre-planned adventures which they called modules. The idea was that your DM could pick up the module, read through it in the afternoon, and be ready to run his party through it by the evening. Nowadays they’re called adventures or scenarios, but the concept is the same: it’s a fully mapped-out series of encounters with a plot.

Now, I don’t actually believe modules achieve full, unadulterated, one-hundred percent suckitude, but they are quite often bad. They fill a particular niche, but they usually don’t do it all that well, they lure you in with the promise of a fun game but almost always end up coming up short. I’d like to examine what makes modules suck so badly, when, really, the designers have good intentions and a lot of talent.

Linearity Blows

It’s easy to knock railroading (putting your party on a straight set of train tracks and simply pushing them forward with no option for lateral movement), and indeed, the pulse of the RPG community seems nowadays to be very against this kind of linearity (just look at the growing popularity of non-traditional games like Fiasco which are extremely non-linear). I personally don’t think a little bit of railroading is bad from time to time, as long as it’s more of a car ride (plenty of area to move within the boundaries), but I do generally favor the sandbox mentality of games. What’s the point of playing in a completely made up fantasy world where you can literally do anything if you can’t actually literally do anything because your GM won’t allow it?

That being said, Modules are, by necessity, very linear. Because of the limited space for writing/publishing, every option is not available to the players running through the modules. Since there is an effort to conserve space, the module writer must reduce the number of options available to the player. Maybe an innovative module here or there will have some options embedded, but usually all of those “options” lead to the same conclusions, making the choices feel fairly useless.

We’ve talked before about how taking away player agency is usually a bad thing (railroading can be okay in small doses, though), and obviously modules do that quite a bit.

The World, it’s so.. inorganic

This is very much in the same vein as the above post, but since the overall plot of the module is pretty rigid, the world begins to feel much less organic. NPCs act in scripted ways (if X, then Y; if Z, then A…) and there’s not much recourse for GMs if players veer off the tracks.

One of the most important things for your game and your game world is the suspension of disbelief, which we’ve talked about many times. If your game is cinematic, or gritty, or very fantastical, the players will have a great time if they’re fully immersed into the game. When you stutter a bit because something is not yet written in your campaign, it breaks the narrative flow of the game.

These “stutter moments” unfortunately happen way more frequently when running a module. No matter how much you prep and read, you’re probably not going to be able to remember every detail in the module. (The same is true about your own game, but you’re much more likely to be able to reference it quickly since you created it yourself). Furthermore, sometimes that something just isn’t there – it hasn’t been written at all. While this is still a problem with your home-brewed game, it’s a lot easier to make something up on the fly since it’s your world and you generally have all the details at hand.

However, in a module, I always hesitate to go off script. How will it upset the “careful” homeostasis of the plot? I have definitely have made mistakes by having NPCs reveal what I thought was trivial information that later became a key cog, or behave in a certain way that turned the whole scenario. Every action has consequences, and without a deep understanding of the game, it’s difficult to get the point where you are totally comfortable with the source material.

Which leads me to…

You have to prepare Modules, too

The strongest selling point of the module is that you don’t have to do as much work as you would creating your own game. Maybe not with regard to coming up with the ideas or designing the encounters, but, especially with longer dungeon crawls and multi-session modules, the preparation can be even more intense. Since the games are so linear, you have to be very familiar with the entirety of the scenario.

I was preparing Horror on the Orient Express, a very long, involved module, and I had a very difficult time with it in the beginning. Since the module is well over a hundred pages, and the players meet important NPCs in the first of numerous acts, it’s hard to be confident what information they would definitely reveal, what information they know and don’t know, and at what point they learn a lot of things. I am confident that it’s impossible to get 100% with any given NPC; there is just too much information (though a lot you could puzzle out based on circumstantial information). My players are creative and it would give me fits to try to answer questions that a certain person should know but aren’t accounted for in their write-up (but DO appear later in the game).

You have to understand a lot of the encounters before they start, you have to look up stat blocks, possibly make modifications based on the relative strengths.

I would say that with the average session run out of a module, I have to prepare at least 75% as much, and I think I usually end up preparing far more, since I try to stick to the module’s vision rather than when I run a home-brewed game when I am much more likely to wing it.

Leftovers

I think that modules also tend to usually feature poor writing, poor layout, inconsistent and holey plots, very repetitive and uninteresting encounters (seriously, the last one I ran thought that having 5 encounters in a row featuring 4 Vrocks + some other lesser creatures was the cat’s meow).

Thus, modules suck. They’re inferior to home-designed games in almost every way, and they’re actually pretty bad in terms of their actual purpose (saving you time and coming up with interesting ideas). Play in a well-run custom campaign and play in a well-run module, you’ll see a world of difference.

Next week: Why Modules Are Awesome!

 

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4 thoughts on “The Inquisition: Why Modules Suck

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  1. I agree with the idea of modules sucking. In that they do at first present some pretty tightly fitting parts. This leaves little room for any deviation from the tracks laid down by the author. Also, I too have fallen into the very same problems with not giving tells about what is happening through NPCs.

    I generally set my notes as an outline for running them though. In those notes I also make some side track lines and how to get back to the story notes. I do think that running and even just reading through modules is a good way to get new DMs into the idea of running and setting up an adventure.

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  2. I just ran the intro module for FFG#s next W40k system, Only War. There were just a few too many times when my players inventiveness wasn’t being rewarded without me throwing away huge chucks of the adventure or rewriting it on the fly. Since that’s very much not the point of the the ‘module’, I did feel like I was rail-roading them more than they deserved, but to get the feel of the game as presented in the adventure, I felt like I had little choice. This didn’t really come up in the review, as it wasn’t a look at the mechanics of running pregenerated adventures, but it’s stuff like that that makes me prefer to run something that I have had complete creative control over. http://shortymonster.wordpress.com/2012/07/23/eleventh-hour-an-only-war-play-test/

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  3. (*sigh* Hobgoblins ate my comment too. twice. Damn case-sensitive CAPTCHAs)

    Modules vary a lot, I’ve seen wonderful modules that support more freeform ways of running and help GM’s like them to their world. And I’ve seen crappy modules where important details are never presented anywhere near where they are referenced and break down if there’s any variation to how it’s run.

    While it may take the same time to prep a module, it’s qualitatively different. When I’m having a busy week at work there’s no way I could write something original of any quality. But I can prep a well-written module easily.

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