The Inquisition: Why Modules Rock

This rocks, too! Thanks to flickr user Martin LaBar. CC BY-NC 2.0

This is the second in a two-part series about running published modules. Last week we talked talk about why modules suck. This week, we’ll talk about why they’re great.

Do you have a life?

Do you actually have a life outside your roleplaying game?

Do you have friends? A hudband, wife, boyfriend, girlfriend? A pet?

Do you like going to the movies? Do you like watching TV or reading books? Do you enjoy hiking, camping, traveling, sports, or one of a hundred other activities?

Do you have a job?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, I follow it with this: where do you find the time to write your own game?

Yes, I’m being facetious, but to a certain extent, I do have a point. Game-planning is very time consuming. I’ve never planned enough for a game; there are always more details to add, more ways to describe a room, more flesh to add to the bones of the NPC’s. The world continues onward and outward beyond the edges of the scenario: fantasy worlds have nations and histories that reach through thousands of miles and years, NPCs have character backstories that last decades or longer and explain their tortured or blessed existence.

Genesis takes time. Lots of it.

On the other hand, modules take far, far less time. Are they, even the best ones, usually lacking in depth? Yes, of course. There just isn’t enough space in the pages of a module to flesh out an entire world. And, truth be told, you usually don’t need the entire world – that’s what improvisation is for. That’s when you tell your players you’ll get back to them, or break the fourth wall a little bit and tell them they’re barking up the wrong tree for this scenario.

The luxury of running as module is that it saves you two huge investments: time, and creativity.

We just talked about time, so let’s jump to creativity. Creating things from scratch is hard, hard work. You need to make things interesting. You need to make things fun. You need to make sure you’re only being inspired and not just straight-up ripping off your inspirations. (We’ve probably all played in scenarios that were cribbed directly from movies). The best thing about the module is that you don’t need to have a cool idea or even the beginnings of an idea – you just pick it up, read through it, do some preparation so you know it, and then be on your way. You can obviously just use the module as your inspiration as well.

I really like reading modules, not running them. Why? Because they give me ideas. I shamelessly steal some of them, but most of the time I adapt them to my own worlds and the styles of my games. For this purpose, the huge mega-campaigns are usually too much, so I like to choose smaller, maybe 1-8 page modules that just have the seed of an idea. I think map-drawing and scenario design is incredibly time consuming as well, so I definitely use (with modification) encounters designed by others in my games. I love that someone took the time to make sure this combat is a reasonable fight for a fifth-level party so I don’t have to. (Caveat emptor: not everything you read in a module is actually balanced!)

Thus, my advice to you when it comes to modules is this:

Published adventures are a tool. If you use the tool for a task for which it was not intended, it will probably do, at best, a lousy job and at worst will not be able to do it at all. I think most designers build modules that are ready to run out-of-the-box, but I suggest an alternative “right job” for modules: inspiration and adventure skeletons. Read through an adventure, but don’t be married to anything in it. Use the elements you like. Toss out the elements you don’t. Write new elements, skip entire pages and rooms, make it a sprawling campaign or a minute encounter. Don’t try to just pick it up, read it once, and run it; you’ll be disappointed. Modules enhance your game. Don’t make the mistake of having them be your game.

Happy gaming til next week!

5 thoughts on “The Inquisition: Why Modules Rock

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  1. One of my buddies has a “Spaghetti Sauce Theory” of modules. You can spend all day making spaghetti sauce from scratch. Very flavorful, but it takes a lot of time and effort. Or you can buy spaghetti sauce in a jar. Simple, but it usually tastes bland. Or you can take the jarred sauce and add some herbs and spices, maybe some grilled onions and fresh sausage. Much easier than starting from scratch and much tastier than the straight jar sauce.

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  2. Very good point. If I was more comfortable with a system, I would happily take a look at a pre-written adventure, and then just ad on the time to make it my own, but usually one of the things that comes from getting that comfortable is the desire to do it my way. I would probably end up changing the module so much, to suit what I wanted to do, the style I like to GM, and what happens to the adventure after first contact with the players, that it would bare next to no resemblance to the adventure as written, and probably still take a hell of a lot of time.

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    1. That’s a good point. I’ve got a friend like you. He doesn’t try to use modules as anything like they are intended to. He combs them for the shock of inspiration. A plot point here, a map there, an NPC somewhere else. He finds them cheap, often buying them from people who’ve already run them. His game prep binder is …. interesting. 🙂

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  3. Why do you think you need to generate all of those things to run a game? Why do your nations have thousands of miles and thousands of years of history that need generating (and seriously, how many modules provide that kind of detail anyway?)

    I like modules because I like raiding them for ideas, maps, NPCs, potential plot hooks, or art that I can show my players. But the notion that modules save time and give us all of this stuff that we don’t have time to generate on our own? I don’t buy it. I don’t think modules provide that kind of information, in general (and I’ve read an awful lot of them over the years) and I don’t think that games need most of that information either.

    Ray Winninger, in the pages of Dragon Magazine back in 1999 or 2000 or so, coined what he called “the First Rule of Dungeoncraft” and it went something like this: Never create more than you have to to run the game. Who cares about thousands of years of history? Do you need that to run the game? What, really, are the chances that its going to have any relevence to the game? And if you don’t need it, don’t spend time on it. And if it turns out that you’re wrong and you need some historical detail after all? Make it up on the fly, make some notes so you remember it, and you’re good to go.

    I’ve had great luck with running “Schrodinger’s Game”–I’ve got only a very loosely fleshed out outline–a page or so–of what I think is likely to happen in a game session, and some encounters that I think might be necessary. The rest of the game? I have no idea what’s in that box until I open it and run it.

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    1. Joshua, quit bragging. 🙂

      Some of us aren’t good at making crap up on the fly. And I know a lot of people that are good at making stuff up on the fly, but horrible at keeping track of it. For some games it doesn’t matter, but other types of game a deep backstory helps get the players in the right mindset and makes the world feel richer. A lot of this stuff is more in setting material than modules, but most modules have some sort of backstory that may or may not come up.

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