Last time, I was pretty harsh on published modules. So, before the hate mail starts pouring in, I’d like to take a moment to clarify a few things, then I’m going to talk about a few modules that I really like. Naturally, though, the rant comes first…
Right up front, I want to make it clear that I don’t hate published modules as a form. I think that they can give a GM looking for a creative boost a much-need infusion of inspiration. The best modules can even provide a ton of playable material. Rather, my beef is with how modern modules teach inexperienced GMs to design and run adventures. Every one of these adventures has half a dozen pages of backstory, a bunch of meticulously detailed maps, and a map key with two or more paragraphs of text for every room or encounter. Which is fine. But the implication of all of this to a young GM (speaking from my own experience) is that this is how all adventures must be designed and that if your players don’t experience everything in the module, you have failed as a GM.
There’s a lot going on in that last sentence, so let’s unpack it a bit. I covered the first part in my previous post, but that second part is the real killer. The feeling I always got when reading one of these things was, “if the author of the module bothered to write it all down (in excruciating detail), I better make damn sure my players see it.” Now, there’s a recipe for railroading, if I’ve ever seen one. And that’s a tough mindset to break yourself out of. It’s really hard for a young or inexperienced GM to look at a super-cool module and say, “Alright! There are some pretty dope ideas here. Let’s see what the players latch on to and go from there.” Doubly so when the module you’re working from is one that you wrote yourself, which is, naturally, in the style that you’ve been taught by reading published modules.
So how the hell is someone supposed to use a published module? You have two options: (1) strip it for parts or (2) run the damn thing. If you’re going with option (1), you’re basically going to be using the adventure as free brain-storming time. Find all the coolest villains, items, and scenes in the module, re-skin and re-tool them, then drop them into your own game as appropriate. This is probably the best option because it has the most flexibility and, if you’re clever about how you do it, can save you a ton of prep time.
That said, every now and then, you run into a module that is just too fucking cool and you can’t help but open door number (2). It happens to the best of us. The last (and, thus far, only) modern module to really get under my skin was City of the Spider Queen by James Wyatt. It’s a huge, sprawling tale of civil war and necromantic horror in the Underdark that ends with the player characters not only to saving the world, but determining the fate of an entire species. So, hey, looks like we’re gonna run the damn thing. How do we do it?
First, make it yours. There’s going to be a bunch of stuff that the author does in the module that you’re not going to like or agree with, no matter how dope their adventure is. Find everything in the adventure that rubs you the wrong way and either change it or rip it out entirely. For example, in an early section of Spider Queen, the players encounter a Drow guard post. Here, I’m less concerned with how many guards there are and how many reinforcements come when they sound the alarm than I am with making sure the scene feels awesome. So, I ignore the precise disposition of Drow forces (which the module includes, if that’s your jam) and instead write up a list of cool descriptions for Drow guards and start brainstorming about how they’re going to react to a sudden incursion by half a dozen heavily-armed, high-level murder-hobos. These are battle-hardened veterans, so instead of fighting to the last man, they’ll probably take a few hits before they run for their damned lives and set up a nasty ambush further along. Stuff like that.
Also, accept the fact that your players aren’t going to see a solid 50% of the material in the module. Straight up. Through some combination of cunning, incompetence, disinterest, and random dumb luck, your players are going to skip a TON of stuff in the adventure. Whether this manifests as skipping a huge section of the dungeon, killing a major villain half a dozen sessions early, making enemies of an adventure-critical NPC, or something equally ridiculous and “game breaking,” it’s basically guaranteed to happen. Not only should you not be worried about this, you should be totally pumped by the prospect. Really! If your players “break the module,” that means they’ve made it their own! They’ve got skin in the game, now! You’re no longer telling someone else’s story, you’re telling theirs. And that’s really fucking cool.
You might have noticed that throughout this post and the last one, my complaints have largely been centered around “modern” modules. That’s for a very specific reason. I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but at some point around the release of 3rd Edition, adventure authors started changing how they approach module design. So, what changed and why do I prefer the older style? Mostly, the difference lies in the older approach to storytelling. Rather than explicitly defining a plot, older modules tend to create compelling locations, fill them with interesting monsters and characters, then let the players and GM tell their own stories. As a GM, this frees me of a lot of baggage I’ve come to expect from modules and empowers me to add/remove/change as much or as little to/from/of the module as I like. Even if it’s purely psychological (which it probably is), it’s a powerful feeling to be handed a ton of cool ideas and told to go wild. To illustrate this, I’m going to dig into the two older modules I mentioned last time, specifically I6: Ravenloft by Laura and Tracy Hickman and The Caverns of Thracia by Jannell Jaquays.
I hadn’t read Ravenloft until about a month ago. It was on John Wick’s recommendation as his pick for The Best Adventure of All Times that I finally picked up a copy and gave it a read. The first thing I was struck by was the lack of wordy introduction. The brief introduction sets the scene for a traditional Gothic horror story, then immediately dives into playable material. The description of Count Strahd Von Zarovich, the now infamous villain of the adventure, on the third page is a revelation. The Hickmans state that you are to play him “in the same way the players play their characters,” giving you not only permission, but an explicit order, to play the Count subtly, intelligently, and with purpose. Then, the authors provide a tarot-like system for determining the location of certain key items within the Castle Ravenloft and even the motivations of the Count himself!* It’s brilliant and evocative of the eastern European style setting. And that’s all the background that’s need. The rest of the story is told through the location and your actions as the NPCs therein. It’s an awesome adventure.
The Caverns of Thracia presents itself as an aggressively traditional adventure. The players are led to the eponymous Caverns – a sprawling megadungeon composed of natural caverns and ancient ruins – by the most cliched of all D&D player character motivations: to get rich or die trying. Yet, as they explore, they discover a rich and detailed history as told through the design and inhabitants of the dungeon. Also, as is representative of Jaquays’s style, the dungeon map has multiple entrances and exits, multiple routes between levels, floor plans that make excellent use of vertical space, and creative and flavorful wandering monsters. Also, the Caverns are big enough that the players are basically required to make multiple forays into the dungeon. This gives you an opportunity to further tell the story of the dungeon as a lived-in place by demonstrating to the players how the inhabitants respond to their actions.** It’s an outstanding example of how a creative writer can take the traditional “kill ’em and take their stuff” adventure and turn it into something special.
If you haven’t read either of these yet, I highly recommend heading over to DriveThruRPG and picking up a PDF copy. It’ll be the best $25 you’ve spent in a while.
M. Hamhock out.
*In fact, you don’t even need to decide the Count’s motivations at the beginning of the adventure, as the players can seek out the gypsy camp at any point during their stay in Barovia for a card reading. Rather, it behooves you as a GM to wait and see what element of the adventure your players latch on to, then stack the deck for their subsequent readings. Cheat to win!
**If you’re thinking about running Caverns yourself, please check out Justin Alexander’s excellent posts on the subject. He presents the idea of the megadungeon as the GM’s character, which is absolutely brilliant.