Wednesday, December 5, 2018

All I Ask is a Tall Ship ...

Though I have written long and viciously about the proliferation of pre-written modules for DMs, and why it weakens the game, I have written a module myself and I have put it up for sale.  Does that make me a hypocrite?  My critics would argue yes.  Most of my supporters would admit, yeah, it's a fair call.  And still ...

I could write another for-purchase module.

Here's how I could justify it.

We hear a lot of reasons why DMs buy modules.  It's easier than making an adventure.  It saves time.  The modules are good.  They're better than I could make.  They give me good ideas.  There are so many, they depict things I would never have thought of.  I love the floor plans.  The players prefer modules.  Modules create a shared culture inside the role-playing community.

On the surface, I don't have any problem with any of these reasons.  We buy many things for the sake of convenience and to save time.  For the most part the modules probably are as good or better than most adventures a DM could make for themselves without a few years of practice.  Anyone, including me, can get a good idea from a module ~ though in truth, a good idea can be gotten from anywhere.  The floor plans are pretty nifty.  Players raised on modules, familiar with modules, do prefer them ... the same way you prefer the ice cream from that shop you knew when you were just a little kid.  There's no question that the shared community is alive and strong; if I say Bree-Yark, just about every reader on this blog knows the reference perfectly.

Apart from the brief smile that passes, I'm not sure what that accomplishes, but I accept it.  Even better, you can search for the module of your choice on Reddit (or elsewhere) and feel instantly at home sharing your experience.

On a deeper level, however, I have doubts.  I see why players might prefer them viscerally, but why would a DM?  Yes, we have the benefit of time saved, but once we've read through the module in preparation to run it, where's the satisfaction?  We get the pleasure of watching the players go through it, but that's a second-hand experience; and what of it?  We didn't make the module, so when they get to the end and they've had a great time, what exactly does that say about us?

There's an original series Star Trek episode, The Ultimate Computer.  The M-5 Multitronic computer system is installed in the Enterprise to see if a computer can run a star ship, and after an initial test in which the computer wins a battle simulation against opponents, Star Fleet sends Captain Kirk a message: "Our compliments to the M-5 unit and regards to Captain Dunsel."  That message is annoyingly cut out of this clip, but the answer to the message is included.  McCoy asks, "Dunsel?  Who the blazes is Captain Dunsel?"  Kirk, affected, leaves the bridge and Spock explains after he's gone, "Dunsel, Doctor, is a term used by midshipmen of the Star Fleet Academy.  It refers to a part that serves no useful purpose."

Okay, now, calm down.  I get it.  As a DM, we are not just tapping out the module code for the players to react to.  We're adding our own flavor to the module, we're changing and adjusting the module to fit our game world or the specifics of the campaign, even the specific needs of the characters.  We're definitely serving a useful purpose.  We are not a dunsel!

I agree.  But ... then what is the module, precisely?  Training wheels?

See, if you find pride in the use of the module from you're take on the material, the way you spin the adventure, the changes you make ... and you bristle at the notion that reading off a description of a room word-for-word makes you a dunsel ... then aren't you a little mixed up?  Why not make all of the module?  Why not enjoy the pride for having written every single word?  Otherwise, why not just coast and read the module as is, and enjoy that being a dunsel took less work and ended up satisfying your players anyway?  Hey ... they like pre-written modules.

And so do you.

See, I think this argument is at the core of the issue, but I don't think that it IS the issue.  Whether you think of yourself as a dunsel or not, whether you reacted viscerally to the metaphor, thinking that I was going to chastise you for being a dunsel if you bought a module (I'm not) ... none of that is the point.  The point is that as a DM, you like the module just as much as the player does.  It is your greedy little fingers flipping the pages at the game store, or after you've bought it, as the module DMs you with its dazzling cleverness and marvelous floor plans.  The module is your chance to be a player, an opportunity that is constantly stolen from you every time you have to gather your group together and be a DM.

Thinking about it, I believe this is perhaps the real reason for the module's popularity.  My experience has been that the players just don't care.  I've run a couple hundred players of every kind through all sorts of adventures, none of which came out of a module and I never had a player complain that the adventure wasn't up to snuff ~ even back at the beginning when I was really bad at making adventures.  When I used to play a lot, and the DM had invented something, no one complained.  Look around the internet ~ do you hear a lot of players complaining, "Wow, the DM made his own adventure and it was really shit.  I'm never playing with that DM again!"

I'm sure it happens.  But I don't see long pages on Reddit expounding on the experience.  Yes, if you need to, feel free to link one; that doesn't make it common.  I've been hunting on the internet for D&D crap for 20 years and I have stumbled across it, so even if you have, it's still damn rare.

On the other hand, I'm sure I could find an example of DMs gabbling about the "great modules" and what modules we ought to buy pretty easily.  It is a major source of amusement.

How could I justify writing a module for coin, even though I spit on modules?  I'm a DM.  I run games.  And if you're a DM buying a module from me, from my perspective, that is just me running you.  What you do with the module afterwards, whether you ever use it in a campaign, doesn't matter.  We've had our DM-player moment and my conscience is clear.

Would I respect you if you bought my module?  Hm.  That's tricky.  I tell you honestly, I would respect you a helluva a lot more if your bought my module and wrote to me to say you will never run players through it.  If you wrote to tell me you used the module ro run players, and told me the players liked it, I'd be pleased. I like when players enjoy a game that I've DMed.

But in that second case ... sorry to admit it, but ... my regards to Captain Dunsel.

I'm not a hypocrite.  I just see the whole board.

I suppose that what I need to do is figure out how to write a game module that a DM can play, that can't be used to run players.  That way, I get to stick it to those people who call me a hypocrite and I could still run the game through the medium of writing.

Might be a way.


Jomo Rising said...

Nice. There is comfort and safety in the module. I have heard... At least three times, where a different DM justified the difficulty of a situation because the module was written that way. The coward's way out. I don't want the characters to die, so I will go for the official product. My ideas might be too dangerous, you see. I don't want to feel bad if I mess up. It's easier yes, but if you run modules often then it is closer to those training wheels mentioned above, training wheels that are unlikely to be taken off. Eventually the brain softens so that the module is the way it is supposed to be, and personal invention becomes foreign. I'm in a testy mood so forgive me.

Drain said...

"Choose Your Own Adventure" books having been my own entryway into RPGing, this is a bit of a contentious issue for me. I've never ran a module or been run through one as a *table* player but I've definitely flicked through a fair few as a reader to see the appeal and gotten some vicarious pleasure out of the experience.

This trend has not gone unnoticed by game companies who have, since the 90's, increasingly shifted their modules' content presentation away from usability and toward readibility. I cannot wholeheartedly decry this approach since it did play its part in getting myself aboard the hobby and I can't have been the only one.

Nowadays I can still see the crutch-value in immediately usable table information and a neutral set of challenges and procedures, the more 'gamist' underpins of a running, so to speak. The narrative parts and the fluff I can do just as well without. Perhaps a clearer and more definite splitting of categories between "story/narrative-modules" and "rules/situation-modules" is called for. I know my own blogging efforts have been forever inching in the latter's direction.

In any event, you writing a module strikes as most odd, to say little, but that largely depends on what is understood to constitute one. How did you enjoy the previous effort and how was it received?

Alexis Smolensk said...

Nothing to forgive, Jomo. I'm glad I grew up in a time when killing your characters was nothing to be ashamed of.

Alexis Smolensk said...


Ternketh, my module, sold maybe 20 copies. No complaints. When I ran it myself, I found a few disconnects in the language, but those were easy to fill up; I presume others found the same, since no one ever brought it up to me. My players really enjoyed the experience ~ that module did kill one of them outright, killed another that could be death doored back into existence and wasn't an easy walk. Every character was limping when it was done.

The process of drawing out the rooms and writing the pages, I remember, took about 3-4 weeks. But I remember I was driven at the time; I always get a lot more done when I get obsessed with something.

James said...

I think I've used 3 modules ever. 2 4E ones, one that was fine if dull, and another that was terrible. One 2E one thst was much better. The first two times, I used it as a critch as I was new to DMing. The last time, I used it as a change-up because I was running thin on ideas and my players were getting way too familiar with my style. That was maybe 2-3 years ago. Haven't used one since, or been tempted to.

Jon Gazda said...

I absolutely resonate with the idea of buying a module to not run it for players. I keep up-to-date on a lot of official and unofficial modules, because as a game-maker I enjoy seeing how different minds create rpg analogues for real-world situations. However, these parts are usually diamonds in the rough and the overall module isn't worth dedicating a campaign to.

Lance Duncan said...

In my experience modules don't make prepping for a session easier or faster; it is in fact more difficult to run a good session using a module, than something that you prepared yourself. I have helped maybe a dozen people learn how to DM, and those who ran modules for their first adventure performed worse than those who created their own setting/adventure. Those who ran the modules didn't understand the material well enough to run a good game. If a DM made his own scenarios he knows everything about it and why the situation is the way it is. For a module, the DM has to not only read the material but build an understanding of it and possibly change it to fit their ideas if they want to run a game as good as if they had made their own. Most people who run modules don't take that amount of effort and so their games suffer. Modules are easier to prep if you don't care about the quality of the game. Yet, modules can still be used to great effect if you want to put in the work.

Fuzzy Skinner said...

In the past, I have used modules not only to help me run as a beginner referee, but as a beginner to a new system. The Star Wars RPG had completely different mechanics, tone, and assumptions about play than D&D, so I was happy to get a little help until I became more familiar with the game; players usually understand, especially if it's made clear that we're trying to learn the game together.

But after becoming even somewhat familiar with how a system runs, it's definitely better for me to write my own material. Because so much of the processing and background is in my own head, I can fit an entire cave system on a page or two and not have to flip pages looking for that one tidbit of description that I skipped over. Even if what I make could be considered a "module", the audience is quite small - my players.

kimbo said...

I think a DM-only module would be to provide a rules framework (minigame) for running a novel situation very well. One which would be easily utilised in any campaign and which is typically not handled well in normal rules sets.

As an example: one that you mentioned on the blog, all characters are in free fall and fighting to get an object from an opponent .... ok maybe that one is a bit narrow for a module, but it is a unique and memorable situation.

Could be anything from chases, stealth, aerial combat, to surviving the elements, escaping a burning city, conspiracy-mystery, fighting/moving within a larger battlefield....

Your rules for character backgrounds is one such.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Underwater Adventure!

kimbo said...

Or dare i say it, a trade system for a region.

I envision 3 products within pair of covers. One, a minigame rules system for the specific situation/need with a blank format that can be used and re-used by DM to create their own version for their world. Two, a full working example with enough information for it to be picked up and played. Three, story text that goes with the example to flavour it with and perhaps provide guidance on presentation and managment.

I think the love of some modules is of one or more of these elements, however badly presented.

Ozymandias said...

I love modules.

I mean, they suck. Formatting, presentation, content ~ they're just terrible because the authors/producers have no idea how to publish their material in a way that is immediately useful to a DM. (then again, maybe that's not possible.)

But I love them because I crave material for my world and I'm just not capable of producing the volume I desire.

The world is a big place. Like, really big. I find modules useful for adding locations, characters and (potentially) events to my world. In practice, though, I find that 80-90% of the time, the material from a module ends up in the background because the players don't engage it the way I envision.

Not going to stop me from using modules; just means I need to get better at hooking the players.