Thursday, August 28, 2008

Published Adventure Modules

I have a love/hate relationship with published D&D modules.

As a player, I tend to hate published modules. Maybe it's just the game masters that I play with, but when somebody goes into a wooden reading of the "boxed text" for an encounter... Let's just say I don't like it. Published modules are a crutch. Everything is prepackaged and preplanned, and all it takes is for a GM to spoon feed their players the contents, following the printed plan. They can turn a genius of creativity and improvisation into a soulless automaton.

As a game master. I like published adventure modules. They often have interesting backgrounds and settings. Memorable NPC characters. They are sometimes very well polished with interesting tactical combat challenges, infuriating puzzles and traps and great opportunities for role-playing and development. I enjoy reading the modules and thinking about how how my players might react to the setup.

I just bought H2: Thunderspire Labyrinth. And I think with a little work I can work it into my campaign. In fact it's a pretty good fit.

So I've been thinking about how I can use the supplement without falling into the "reading the boxed text" trap that I hate so much. I've come up with a few options.
  1. I could just read and enjoy the published adventure at home and continue to run my homegrown adventures, for which I still have lots of ideas.
  2. I could (figuratively) rip the module into little bits and plant the pieces into my campiagn where I think they'll fit.
  3. I could do as much preparation as I'd normally do with my own adventures making the published adventure into my own adventure.
  4. I could completely rewrite the adventure using it as inspiration rather than as a reference.
Honestly, Option 1, is what I usually do. For the most part, I'll buy an adventure, enjoy reading it, and never spring it on my players. At least half the published adventures I own have never been played.

Option 2 is unsatisfying for me. A story is more than the some of its parts. A group of encounters is really not that difficult to put together. The value of an adventure, published, homegrown or improvised, is not so much in the details, but rather in the how it fits into the overall adventure. The sum is more that it's parts, so to speak.

I think Option 3 is what most people *should* be doing with published adventures. I think that good DMs usually put a fair amount of time into planning for their home-grown sessions. When I'm planning one of my own adventures, I think about the plot direction, get a vague notion of what NPC's will be doing and otherwise make sure that I have enough of a framework that I can easily fill in the fleshy bits with improvisation. I do this with a broad strokes in planning out the developing plot as an ongoing effort, and in a more detailed fashion planning for each upcoming session. So if I was running a published adventure module I could easily spend a the same amount of time reading through the module getting an idea of the overall adventure, and then look in detail at the sections and encounters that the party will likely be running across in each session.

But it's Option 4, that has a special resonance with me. Let me tell a brief story.

When I was a young lad, before I owned any D&D products. I played my first published adventure. That adventure was Castle Amber it was DMed by an inexperienced DM that mostly just read the boxed text, and ran it straight, with no improvisation that I recall. I liked it then. I'm pretty sure I wouldn't like it run that way now. I was young and easy to please in those days, but still I believe that Castle Amber was one of the better published adventures of its day.

Years later when I wasn't quite so young, I was DMing for a group of players and decided to recreate Castle Amber from memory for them. We were playing a completely different system at the time. Castle Amber was for the "Expert" boxed set for the non-advanced D&D and the group I was DMing for was playing the original "Oriental Adventures" rules in a far east campaign.

Castle Amber adapted from memory to Oriental Adventures was one of the funnest adventures I ever ran, both for me and for the players. I never saw the stats for any of the encounters of the original, I did fight the battles and hear the room descriptions though. That one time that I played through it, the group I was with certainly didn't manage to explore the whole castle, but I remembered the fun that I had and I possibly forgot about the frustrations. I tried to create something that incorporated the best of everything and modified it to fit the oriental flavour of the game we were playing and succeeded better that I or anyone had expected. It was a high point of my early D&D experience.

So Option 4 is to read through the adventure, and the leave it at home and try to recreate it from memory. I don't know if that's quite the same as playing through it once then trying to recreate it from memory years later, but maybe I'll give it a try.

The real objective is to take some ownership of the adventure. In order to do that you need to put some work into it. Whether that work is reading the adventure before hand, and doing the prep work you'd normally do, or to force one's hand by leaving the actual materials behind, there's a certain amount of you and your campaign that just has to be there to give it life and to bring fun into what could be a soulless and frustrating experience.

Wish me luck.

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