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!

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.


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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The Mindripper, or, You Want Me to do What With my Adventure?

In the time that I have been writing for TC, I have tried to push myself as a gamer. I enjoy many different facets of the hobby so if I have had a good opportunity to make myself a better GM or a better player, I have tried to take it. One part of the hobby that has gotten my attention recently has been the writing side of things, namely, adventures.

A few weeks back, I had what I thought was a brilliant idea: Since I’m already planning to run a bunch of sessions at KantCon and other cons this summer, why don’t I just take some extra time and write up the adventures formally. Who knows? Maybe I could get them published and make a few bucks to help subsidize my convention-going habit. The idea felt good, so I contacted a few companies, got some approval for the idea and sat down to write.

Then I realized that writing an adventure is fucking hard.

My brilliant idea failed to take into account the fact that, when writing adventures in the past, I have never, ever just sat down and written things out in their entirety, especially not with enough attention to detail to allow someone else to run the adventure based on what I have written. Adventures have always been 1 part pre-planning, 3 parts on-the-fly idea creation and 7 parts oh-crap-I-need-an-idea-and-the-game-is-in-three-hours. Working to get all of the setting bits and all of the character bits and all of the story bits lined up before I have even rolled die one is an intimidating thought. In fact, it’s downright paralyzing.

Enter: The Mindripper.

The hardest part about writing an adventure is bringing out the ideas and laying them down on paper before you think you’re ready to do so. It’s like they’re waiting there in their safe, warm places, incubating, waiting for their shells to harden before they get passed down the neural pathways that see them spilling onto the printed page. The Mindripper takes them and wrenches them out of their soft places and lets you gaze in awe at their half-formed glory right in the seconds before you being poking and prodding them into their final shape.

Now, if the Mindripper were really a physical object, this entire process might be a hell of a lot easier. But it’s not. The Mindripper is no more and no less than the willingness to suck for a while before you make it all good again. I know that I can craft fun adventures; I have done so numerous times in the past. I have to be disciplined enough to send my mind down the pathways that are usually reserved for game sessions and find the inspiration that makes it homes there naturally. What comes out of those initial jags of inspiration might be crap warmed over, but it’s a place to start. And if you’re lucky, what you end up digging out looks more like a mucky diamond that just needs to be cut and polished.

That’s my challenge to myself, and to anyone else that thinks they would like to write an adventure, or anyone else, really: develop the discipline to just do it. Find a way to pull those little knots of idea gristle out of your brain and put them down somewhere. Sometimes, it will be easy. Other times will feel like you’re trying to pull your gonads up through your cerebral cortex. But do it.

My hope is to someday see something that I wrote be published for consumption by other gamers. To do that, I need to work. So I’ma get to it.

[tags]rpg, rpgs, role playing games, books, writing, publishing, adventures[/tags

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