There. The title says it. I admit it. I don’t like published adventures. In my 30 years of GMing I have used published adventures only a handful of times. For the most part I stay away from them and write my own materials. Why don’t I like published adventures? There are a few reasons.
A Gradual Falling Out
Published adventures, or Modules as we called them when I was just a fledgling GM, are complete stories for a given game that are meant to be run in one or more sessions. I did not jump behind the screen, day one, running my own stuff, I ran lots of modules when I first started in the hobby, and in many ways I can’t imagine how I would have started as GM without them. Over time though, I have been less interested in published adventures and far more interested in writing my own.
Note– I have a number of friends in the industry who write published adventures. Don’t take these reasons personally…
So why don’t I run modules? There are a few reasons. You may or may not agree with them all, or any, but here is what I think.
Modules Are Written For Everyone
I know my gaming group, the writer of an adventure does not. So when that writer writes, in most cases they are writing for some generic group, and have to make assumptions about that group along the way. That’s not the writers fault, that is how the writer has to work. Because of that, the writer cannot take advantage of things about my group or your group, and they must drive the story along without directly hooking into the player’s backgrounds and motivations, etc.
The end result is that the module is not personal for the group playing it. In many cases its a location based event (e.g. Dungeon) or it’s a mission based story where some external force drives the character’s motivation (e.g. Quest, Top Secret Mission, Contract, etc). That in itself is not bad, but playing only those kinds of adventures can be dry over time.
When I write my sessions, I make the motivations for the adventure personal. I look at the backgrounds of the characters, I look at the NPC’s they have encountered, and I come up with a personal reason why they want to be involved. That personal tie in generates an emotional connection with the players and enhances everyone’s intensity when playing.
Modules Do Not Make You A Better Storyteller
Published adventures do not expand your abilities to write adventures. They are a nice source of ideas and can even help with understanding what elements need to go into writing your own session, but they do nothing about making you a better storyteller. When the whole plot of an adventure is thought out for you, your imagination has to do very little to run it. Read the text boxes, follow the notes for what to do, etc.
When you write your own adventures, you exercise your creativity, imagination, and writing skills. You need to think of a structured plot, create engaging NPC’s, create motivation, description, etc. All of these things make up a good storyteller. The only way these things improve is through practice. Every adventure your write is a step on the path to making you a better storyteller.
Modules Are An Added Cost
My imagination is free. Modules are not. There is a reason why big companies make modules, it’s a revenue stream. In order to keep money coming in after a company sells the core rules, they have to start selling adventures (or supplements, but that is for a different day…). The bottom line is that after putting out the money for the core books, you are then spending additional money for the adventures you are going to run.
I have had my own financial up’s and down’s over the years, and I am not always keen on spending additional money on adventures. One of the things I like about this hobby is that when I want to, I can keep spending down to a minimum. I don’t need to buy mini’s, map packs, or modules; I can take the core book and my imagination and play.
Some will argue that time is money. I agree. That time spent writing is part of what I love about being a GM, so that is not lost time for me – that is part of working on my hobby.
Why Not Hack Them?
Sure. You can take a module, read it, then start hacking it to make the motivations personal, swap out the NPC’s for ones the PC’s know, change the location, etc. That is all work, and in some cases you are spending as much time hacking the module and keeping the continuity, as you would writing something from scratch.
Full Disclosure — Where I Contradict Myself (a little)
There are always exceptions. There are times when published material can be better than the things you write. In my thirty years of gaming, I have one shining example of where I prefer published material over my own.
Paranoia. Back in the 1st edition days, the published adventures from West End Games (and later ported over to Paranoia XP) were some of the funniest adventures I have ever run. I don’t think as a GM then, and perhaps even now, that I could quite capture the insanity of adventures like: “Send In The Clones”, “Yellow Clearance Black Box Blues,” and my favorite “Me and My Shadow, Mark IV” (from the Acute Paranoia Supplement).
To Write or Run, That Is The Question
I don’t hate published adventures. It’s just not my preference to use them in my day to day gaming. For me, part of being a GM is being the creator of stories; to come up with the plots, the NPC’s and locations. Using a module takes that away from me, and leaves me with only the running of the game (which is my other favorite part of being a GM).
The choice of using published adventures or not is personal to each GM and based on their time, finances, skill as a storyteller, experience as a GM,etc. There is nothing wrong with using them. It is not a sign of GM weakness, any more than not using them is a sign of being a “better GM”.
What about you? Do you like published adventures? Dislike them? Do you use them often, sometimes, never? What are some of your favorites?
I like to use modules or published adventures about 1/2 the time or so. Right now I’m running Dungeon-a-Day, a massive delve by Monte Cook and others. I’m LOVING it.
I always “hack” the modules I run, to tailor the hooks, and to fit my campaign world. Yes, this can take some work, but I enjoy doing it. It’s FUN to tweak my world’s history and the module’s background.
And here’s the real reason I choose to use modules: they force me to break my mold. I run particular types of adventures. I don’t write horror. I am poor at political intrigue, but good at NPC characterization. I am lousy at coming up with fun and different melee combat scenarios. I love it when a module forces me to have a battle on a bridge, or selects monsters I wouldn’t normally choose. I am pushed and stretched by the choices the other author makes.
So yes, modules CAN be a dm’s best way to avoid ruts, stereotyping, and to mix things up for players.
Hey, I’ve never actually run a module before, and I am a little bit curious about the experience. When players go off the rails in a module, are you completely on your own? Or do they contain enough information about the locations they cover to guide improvisation?
I seldom use published scenarios. It should be highly recommended several sources on the ‘net before I touch it. One exception though. I always try to buy a scenario module, so I could have a look at what kind of scenarios that I’m supposed to play. Most RPG’s are really bad at this, even games like Trail of Cthulhu. But play them? Naah. Don’t think so.
Ok, so why don’t I use prewritten scenarios?
1) It takes more time to put them into game then making up a scenario of my own.
2) It locks me as a GM. Published scenarios create a tendency (for me) to railroad. Not that railroading is bad per se, but most (all?) adventures out there are not as dynamic as if I would build a scenario of my own.
3) The scenario creator doesn’t know what my players like.
That’s why I just play scenarios of my own. What I really want is situations, characters and environments that I can create something from. Not factions with prewritten relations (like in Vampire tM). Just factions and suggestions on situations. The rest is up to me to fill in.
With a huge collection of published modules on hand I typically use them for pacing examples, plot structure and most importantly CON games. I was asked to run something outside the listed games for free rpg day and will be using an old D&D module for one of the sessions. Hacking a pregen does not always mean cutting 50% of the material up.
Re-flavoring and minor changes can make a module easy to adapt. With the basic structure left intact names, locations and monsters can be swapped. MOst retro fits take me about a day once I have decided on which one I want to use as the basic plot for games at a convention.
Having to go over the material completely insures that I know the pacing and plot of the session. Leaving me plenty of time and lowers the stress when things go “off the rails”.
Some do and some don’t. You should still be able to think on your feet and be able to re-direct the party back to the story if you need to.
Most modules take place in an established world. So, that area in which the adventure takes place should have some information fleshed out already.
Typically there is more to go on for city based adventure than wilderness ones.
I’m running Rogue Trader right now and using modules exclusively. I just don’t have time to write adventures.
My players are in the same boat. They just want to show up and game. They don’t talk much between games. Almost all of our time is spent actually playing the game.
So modules work great for me. I think if my players wanted a more in depth game I’d be willing to try it. But right now, if I wrote a lot of modules, I think I’d feel like I was was wasting my time. I’d labor over them, we’d run it, and never talk about the adventure again. I’d feel let down by that so I concentrate on actually playing instead. It works for us so far.
I mostly agree. The one point I find contentious is on hacking modules.
Even if you spend the same amount of time, hacking a module is a different activity than writing an adventure. Adjusting what’s already written requires less creativity. You read through the adventure and tweak variables to make it more relevant to your party. This is something you can just sit down and do mechanically.
Writing the entire adventure, on the other hand, involves creativity. You’re subject to writer’s block. You might sit down to write and have nothing come out. Worst of all, when you do write, you may get anxious about the players not liking it. There’s a whole set of issues that come with writing your own game that can be bypassed by using a module.
I’m just really starting to GM, I don’t count any of the GMing I did in the late 70’s and early 80’s because looking back on what I did it really sucked. When I came back in the 90’s I pretty much just played. Now I am trying my hand at gming I like sample adventures and modules to try out a new game system. Once things are off the ground with a given system I switch to my own flavor of homebrew.
I rarely use them for the smae reasons listed here, but mostly that I’ve found they rarely fit e characters and scenarios we prefer. I have taken basic ideas, or stolenca few NPCs here and there, but that’s usually it.
Phil and I stand on opposite sides of this ravine — which is cool — not all gnomes be alike. (Betcha can’t hit me from overrrrr there!) And he makes a lot of good points that are important to HIS game.
I would only make this observation: My imagination has limits. A published module — a well-conceived and executed module (or even better, super-mega adventure) can take your game someplace you would never have imagined. That’s the primary reason I use modules, to take a game places I would not have conceived.
In a lot of ways, I’m on both sides of the fence on this one. I have a pile of old modules and gaming magazines that I occasionally go through. I rarely ever play the modules whole. Normally I’ll pull out a map, or steal a series of puzzles, or just get lazy with my traps and pull a few of the less lethal ones straight from the original source.
I often find that modules have characters (especially villains) that don’t live up to what I can create on my own, and I have yet to see a paraphrase box that really suits my style of speaking in game. Also, if you’re not running a one shot, a badly designed module can throw your game off in terms of treasure or reward handout.
Still, much like the divide between planning and improv gaming, I think everyone should run a module at least once, just to see what other peoples’ work looks like. As a matter of fact, this is a popular way for players in my group to get past my rule that everyone has to GM at least one session over a given period.
So I want to provide a response to just put the other side of the module out there but I think every reason you have is quite valid.
Modules might not be written for everyone but they can provide a frame work to customize the module for your group. Modules can be used like Eureka if you just re-skin them or re-purpose a villain as one of the ongoing villain NPC’s in your campaign. This can take a little work on the GM’s part but it’s no different than taking a Eureka plot and fleshing it out. The only thing is you have more material to deal with. I know you address this in your “Why Not Hack Them?” section but sometimes it’s good for the creative mind to take on the task. It’s like working in a box, especially if you like the premise of the module, to try and figure out how to work this story into your ongoing games. With this idea in mind I think modules can inspire storytelling.
A module could be the spring board for a whole campaign. On the other side it could be the climax for a story and everything leading up to it are things you’ve been inspired to write. Take a step back and a lot of the old modules from TSR didn’t have a whole lot of plot to them, leaving it up to GM to create. It’s why some of these modules are still run even today. They’re just setting for you to drop your players into and manipulate as you think best.
I also have to slightly disagree with the statement “The only way these things improve is through practice.” in the Modules Do Not Make You A Better Storyteller section.
One of the ways you improve as a storyteller is through practice and it’s one of the best, but without exposing yourself to how other people tell stories you can, and probably will, get stagnant. We’ve talked Phil so I know you have a gaming group where you rotate your GM’s so you can see how other people portray their NPC’s, tell their stories, and give descriptions of locations. This means you get a view of other people preforming the result of the same craft we’re talking about here and can speak with them about how they’re going about doing it. On top of that there’s the Gnome Stew which has advice all over it for telling stories. For those GM’s out there who GM more often than not we need to, a) read more Gnome Stew, and b) look else where for our inspiration. To that we read books, watch TV and Movies, and read modules to see how other people are doing it. It’s another method for learning.
You hit the time is money thing an since the piece is about why you don’t like published adventures and played devils advocate on yourself I’m right there with you. Maybe I’ll try and clarify a little bit of what you’re getting at. People should decide what excites them about the hobby and then structure their resources (Time and Money) around that.
To answer your question of To Write or Run I do both for many of the reasons I stated above. I think there is value in doing both but my goal is to get better at my craft as a GM and a writer and yes, I probably take this stuff a little to seriously. I think the better question is ask yourself what parts of the hobby are most enjoyable to you? Figure out what kind of fun you like to have? If creation away from the table is more your thing then write, if creation at the table is then run some mods. I don’t think people think about their fun enough but that’s another subject. In any case I enjoyed the article. Really good thought provoking stuff.
Yea, I fundamentally disagree with Phil on just about every point. Turning your nose up at published adventures is shortsighted.
I like modules when I start a campaign to get a good feel of the game and its balance. I do a fair amount of tweaking to make it “mine” and to conform to the needs of my players, though. Then I go off on my own. Kind of like using training wheels, I guess.
First, let me say that the thing I love about this site and our readers is that this is an easy topic to have started up an argument, but rather there has been some great discussion, thus far on both sides of the issue. Thank you for sharing your feelings about published adventures.
To my fellow Gnomes on the other side of this topic, I hope that one or more of you are planning on writing the counter to this article. I have shared one side of this topic, and the other side deserves a full discussion.
@DNAphil – Hey Phil, I didn’t mean to imply that you were a snob or some such. Just stating that, in general, turning “your nose” — the general reader, not Phil specifically — hand waves a number of benefits that published adventures provide.
I believe some Gnome volunteered the counterpoint article. If not, maybe I will.
90% of the time, I prefer to run my own. Two reasons for this:
1. When I write the adventure from scratch, I’m a lot more in tune with how to improvise with it. I understand the motivations of the NPCs and how they would react, because I spent a lot of time thinking about that kind of stuff when I was imagining the story. When I run a published adventure, I have a harder time getting into the heads of the GM characters.
2. Creating the adventure is a big part of my fun in the hobby. I like to dream up the fantastic scenarios and situations, make the maps, stat the bad guys, and design the traps. It’s fun. And it’s a bigger glow of satisfaction when your group really enjoys the game.
I wish I could like published adventures.
Because when they work, they are a tremendous time-saving device. Unlike DNAphil, I don’t enjoy creating adventures, so I’d rather skip that chore if possible.
But the adventures need to be easier to hack. Like DNAphil, I DO like playing off my PC’s motivations, and published adventures are usually bad at that. I also enjoy creating RPG settings, and it’s often difficult to fit the adventure into a homebrew setting. So published adventures that are explicitly designed to be easy to tweak in these details would serve my needs extremely well, and I’d LOVE to be able to buy them.
My answer to this is, well…. it depends on the adventure.
I have found over the years that I can manage just fine with adventures that are well written and/or flexible enough in their approach. But when a plot arc hinges upon “a single moment to go exactly so” in the adventure then it can be full of epic fail.
Either way, I love stealing maps, items, and NPC concepts from adventures, well written or not. Maps are especially useful since I hate making them for the adventures that I write. 😀
With Gnine Gnomes, did y’all seriously think there wouldn’t be a counterpoint article?
I’m working on it as soon as game prep is done. Stay tuned dear reader, same Gnome Channel, same Gnome time…
I like modules, or simple one-shot adventures, for starting up campaigns. I do a lot of the actual adventuring and story myself, but find modules give a good place to start. They can also make great filler when needed- usually between story arcs.
Typically I hack them beyond recognition, but that’s fine; my primary use of modules is finding a starting point and building from there, not following the module-as-written.
While I am more a developer, I do work in the creation of published adventures for Rite Publishing, especially my Kaidan (Asian horror setting for Pathfinder). The Curse of the Golden Spear trilogy of adventures had several goals in its creation.
1. Horror gaming can be difficult to protray for a given GM, and much of the effort in our adventures is to make horror work, and do so effectively, intent on scaring the pants off your players.
2. Although the adventures have a starting place and an ending place, all points in between are subject to the variations players might go, that don’t fit a ‘railroad’ story concept, so our adventures tend not to be railroaded events, but flow freely from place to place, with lots of room for customized activity based on the group running through it.
3. Where some parts seem railroady, it fits the plot, and keeping in line with the story is only done slightly – an angry bad guy sending his army out to get the PCs, so when PCs are not on their clear path to escaping, they run into the bad guys forces.
Nothing in our adventures is cut in stone, and individual groups can freely do options and still make the adventure storyline work. There is lots of room for side adventures. Some of the adventures feature side plots along the whole.
While I can’t say, I prefer prepublished adventures, since most the adventures I play, I’ve written myself.
I think you touch on the most important good point of modules. When you can be guaranteed that mostly railroading the players through it is the optimal method of play, modules have a TON to offer.
Great examples are, as you say, Paranoia modules. In Paranoia it’s perfectly acceptable to railroad the group via the use of clearances and The Computer so that they can get right back onto the rails of the adventure… and it’s great fun! In Paranoia, at least. Another great example is the Tomb of Horrors and modules of its ilk. It’s from the start a railroaded affair that is at best linear-branching. But it’s a timeless classic and one I love.
When modules have to deal with open world environments and NPCs they tend to fall pretty short. If, on the other hand, they are concentrations of ideas that you have a great excuse to shove the players through the pacings of they’re generally amazing.
I would rarely if ever use a published module for the PLOT, but the CONTENTS are brilliant almost unilaterally.