A couple of weeks ago, I picked up a used copy of Dicing With Dragons, a book about RPGs from 1982, and asked the TT community what I should do with it.
I’ve been holding off until I was ready to do something big with it, but last night I realized that I needed to start small.
I found this portion of the GMing chapter (entitled “Playing God”) intriguing:
A section of the hobby has put forward the argument that ready-made scenarios are actually harmful to ‘true’ role-playing. They claim that this leads to stereotyped play, with referees reading descriptions from a booklet, and relieving them of the need to think on their feet.
What do you think of this statement?
There has to be a balance of preplanning and quick thinking. Without each, the game will suffer.
Whether he reads from a booklet or from his own notes, the GM still is required to improvise frequently.
Familiarity with the material is more important than who wrote it, since no amount of pre-written description will cover every possible PC action.
I think it is a wash. A module, just like a pre-planned homemade adventure, can only cover so many angles. Your players will always do something crazy that is outside the scope and force you to think on your feet. What modules do is simply give you a pre-made framework to start from. Your players will always go exploring the edges, no matter who painted the picture.
Speaking from personal experience, I’d say modules have just the opposite affect.
Without a module to hold my hand as I took my first tenuous steps as a GM, I never would have tried it in the first place.
The trick, for me, and this is something I’m really having a hard time with, is cutting the umbilical and running a module-free campaign.
I think lebkin has the right idea – the players are never quite going to go along with the plan, no matter who made it. Using a module can sometimes require even more thought in improvisation than using one’s own material, because whatever a GM makes up has to fit within the framework already established.
A module you write yourself–or rather a set of notes approximating what you actually use out of a module–always runs better than a module. You write it; you know it. The trick is whether you can and will put together such a set of notes for what you have in mind.
I think most modules are pretty lousy to run as written. OTOH, if one looks at them as a starting point for a set of notes, they are often wonderful. There is a lot to be said for having plenty of examples to work with.
I agree that a module will often lead to sterotyped play. That’s fine– sometime beer and pretzel roleplaying is the goal. I don’t think it’s harmful to “true” roleplaying… it’s just an extra constraint for everyone.
If your players haven’t bought into module mode, then you have a whole nother kettle of fish.
All “ready-mades” are is notes, if the stuffed dragon head abouve the fireplace is a important clue for the upcomeing adventure, a prewritten description of the room is just a way to make sure you remember to mention it.
Oh, for the halcyon days of 1982 when one could say “actually harmful to ‘true’ role-playing” with a straight face.
In many cases, I think the use of modules actually would lead to MORE thinking on one’s feet than use of self-prepared material. When I write an adventure, it spends a LOT of time running about in my head. When I transcribe it down onto paper, I only put down the most relevant or probable information. With a module, this process of constant mental playtesting / QCing doesn’t occur and, as such, the DM has much LESS info to go on and a much greater chance of his PCs doing something not previously considered.
If nothing else, a module brings other contributors — the writer, cartographer, artist — to the game table. Mining these elements, even if the actual module is not run, elevates the GM’s capabilities immeasurably.
Anyone who thinks a single GM has a monopoly on genius, even as it pertains to homebrew settings, doesn’t really understand “true” roleplaying.
The hobby, and by that I mean an effectively-run and enjoyably played session, has ALWAYS required a collaborative effort from everyone involved. Repudiating another avenue of collaboration ultimately means limited the experience.
As with any other aspect of RPGs, modules are what you make of them. Some, which can be justly famous for their quality, are great to have. Even if they aren’t used, in the hands of the right person, they make for great inspiration. In the hands of the wrong person, they make for uninteresting sessions with a lack of flavor or a sense of the cinematic.
I won’t use them too often, because my style of scene creation relies on almost total improvisation. I would use them for monster statblocks or to see how a trap might be placed in an enemy’s stronghold. Other than that, when I generally read a module, I don’t generally get too much out of them. Often, the cartography isn’t my style, the storyline not suitable, and a myriad other things would keep me from using a lot of the published modules I’ve seen. I won’t run a dungeon-heavy hack-n’-slash. I’ll leave that to someone else. That is the feel I personally get from a lot of the modules I read.
I’m very much an improv person. I am almost emphatically low-prep. Modules, for me, imply a hefty amount of prep, because I would generally need to read a module 5-6 times before I get to a point to where I could ‘create’ it for someone else. Instead, I’d rather stat out 2-3 NPCs and make up some story that I can twist to the players’ liking. It cuts my prep time down.
The written module/description allows for a succinct turn of phrase that provides a subtle clue.
Providing an ad lib description isn’t too tough. But the more pieces you force into your description, the tougher it gets. You want ‘interesting’, and ‘mood-setting’. ‘Informative’ is useful. Now we want to add a specific clue to the mix.
With a pre-written description, you can edit _after_ thinking it up. But “Whoops, ignore that I said ‘ochre slime trail’. Honest!” doesn’t fly. Either someone will take some action to investigate the officially non-existant slime, or someone will feel burnt when the information under the ‘history eraser button’ comes back to haunt them. “But Al, I _would_ have explored it _IF_ had been there. But you said it wasn’t…”
There are modules with 1-star-plots, and modules with cardboard NPCs. But modules in general are interesting as source material – particularly handouts and maps. In the earliest days, there weren’t very many modules to be had. Running G1 over and over is _of_course_ going to lead to stereotypical campaigns. And there was a distinct lack of ‘town’ or ‘wilderness’ settings for a long time (IMNSHO).
There’s plenty of quick thinking required as GM. You don’t need to take over more positions than necessary from the list: Artist, Cartographist, Plot Designer, Play Balancer, NPC Development, Trap arrangement, Loot arrangement.
Lots of good perspectives here. 🙂
I’m largely in the “modules are good” camp myself — I’ve used them as-is, I’ve tweaked them and made them my own and I’ve run zero-module campaigns. I like having the option, and there’s no longer a single hobby scene for them to impact — if there ever was. Like Kestral said, they are what you make of them.
It’ll be interesting to see if a) any TT readers agree with the POV expressed in Dicing With Dragons (in later comments), or b) opinions on the next DWD posts are more divided.
Hmm, what is “true roleplaying”…
I very occaisionally run modules as is. I almost always run my game based on modules though. But usually I use them for inspiration. Most of my gaming is done in systems not well supported by modules, so they usually need total conversion (except for Arcana Unearthed/Evolved where I was able to make use of some D&D modules without too much conversion). Currently, I’m running RuneQuest so there are a few RQ modules I can use more or less as is.
Actually, where modules can suppress role playing is when they are heavily railroaded or illusionist and thus render the players contribution almost meaningless. The D&D 3.0/3.5 modules thankfully have mostly gotten away from that style of play, but there was a long period in the 90s where modules were very railroady or heavily dependent on meta-plot that the players couldn’t affect.
The trouble with modules is finding the right one with the right scenario at the right level. I have never been able to run from a module, because I have always found them to be too linear, or they just don’t fit what I am doing with my campaign. I tend to use modules like any other source material, picking and chosing elements and ignoring the rest.
Julie – linear modules – that was a problem with modules of the 90s. The newer modules tend to be a lot better, though some are still horribly linear (I pretty quickly bailed out of the first Arcana Unearthed module, Seige of Ebon Ring Keep (not sure that’s quite the right title), because it was a 90s style railroad track, complete with screwing the PCs over with “tests”).
As to finding modules of the right level, for D&D, that’s not too hard. Dungeon Magazine has a nice range of modules (and plenty of them are not overly linear), and then there’s the Dungeon Crawl Classics line (which are decidedly old school in design). The WOTC series of D&D modules isn’t too bad either.
Of course fitting a module into a campaign where you have other goals can be difficult. For me, I have so many modules that I can usually find something that will fit in (of course I also don’t have a long term “plot” for my campaign).
I disagree with the premise that there is a “true roleplaying” experience. It’s just too varied a phenomena — with game system, genre, mood and the capabilities of individuals to be imaginative/expressive as the situation warrants — just to name a few factors. It also depends on what you want from the session (deep immersion storytelling or a lighthearted evening of jokes told between sword blows). There is no “gold standard.”
We’ll be taking a peek at another blanket statement from Dicing With Dragons in tomorrow’s post. It’s different, but still pretty blanket-y. 😉