How I Approach Published Adventures

How I Approach Published Adventures

So, this post has been a reasonably long time coming - it's taken me a bit to get to the point where I could even begin to approach writing about it. There are a lot of thoughts swirling around in my head that need to be let out, and the impulse to talk about all of them is going to be hard to overcome. As such I'm going to try and keep this post focused on one particular theme - how I approach both consuming and running published content for various game settings.

I'll cover what I like to see in them, how I approach using the material, why I prefer to have more information presented in the text over less, and how when running plot-heavy modules I can both advance the "world" of the plot without holding the players to a railroad (cause no one likes that, it's super boring).

This post is the result of several conversations I had with the extremely nice Arcane Library community (aka Shadowdark friends). I've been thinking a lot about the different audiences of published RPG Adventures in particular and what makes a useful and engaging topic for different folks.

The Desire for Lots of Content

Preto Perola @ Shutterstock (Modified)

Perhaps also categorized as "modules with lots of words" in this context, one of the things I like most in published materials is a lot of lore, world-building, and (for certain kinds of games) plot that is happening in the module. There are a couple of reasons for this, some of which I wasn't consciously aware of until I started thinking more about this.

What follows is my mental model, it's partly formed and I hope it's not confusing.

As I think more about this, I think there are three "primary" levels of design that can be tuned to various levels in an adventure:

  • Plot - a narrative that is occurring in the background behind the players. A Demon is summoning its friends for a full-scale invasion, or a nation is plotting an invasion. Depending on the adventure design the events will unfold on their own, or they will "pause" like a video game where you can go on a 40 hour sidequest and the baker's still patiently waiting for bread.
  • Dungeon Design - Dungeon dressing, description of rooms, the inhabitants of those rooms, the reasons they're there, their personalities, and the like. In most modules this will be the category with the most details.
  • Lore - The "history" of the setting. Background on the gods, the lands, its people and the like. This also tends to lead to supplements - like standalone setting books, but can also be included as part of the overall design of an adventure.

Each of those categories can serve a different purpose or audience, and I think for me, I tend to ideally desire a high value in all three categories. For me, a great adventure includes elements of all three to varying degrees. I'd like to say this depends on the context for why I'm engaging with the adventure, but I don't think it does. Let me try to break down the different ways I engage and why I think I approach things the way I do through that.

Reading Adventures as Entertainment

I like reading stories, and published adventures for me are entertaining. This isn't intrinsically attached to the art of then later running those modules, it's simply for the enjoyment of seeing what other adventure designers have put into their content. I feel like a lot of Paizo's published material fits into the category of "Adventure as a fiction story you can enjoy just reading" - their adventure paths in particular tend to be very thick with plot, in particular, there's a story going on and by gods the players are going to experience that plot. ...but are they? We'll get back to that in a minute.

The plot, for those adventures, is akin to reading a more traditional book or short story. There's an overarching "why" to what the characters are doing, and it has a clear start, middle, and finish. Publishers and writers who are doing this kind of a module are really also telling an overall story with the adventure - not just interesting locations for the players to enjoy.

But, in order to make an interesting adventure just for reading, you also need a fair amount of interesting dungeon design material as well as lore material to really flesh out the piece. When you've got a thick plot, it's almost necessary for you to fill out the other two categories in order to make sense of anything. If you don't the whole thing comes across as boring at best, or utterly confusing at first.

If you dial down the overlying plot of an adventure, however, you can still have an interesting entertainment read with the other two elements. It's fun to read a series of maybe-connected-maybe-not-connected rooms just to see what's in there. Setting books can also be entertaining to just read on their own - devoid of an overall plot or hyper detailed map settings.

So, for entertainment purposes, I don't think you can have an adventure that just has a strong plot element and dials the other two to 0. Otherwise, you're just reading a novel and not an adventure. Likewise, you can't have an adventure with only Lore - that's a setting book. If you follow that line of thinking, the only essential element of an adventure is the dungeon design, which seems to be the category which appeals the most to fans of the OSR genre.

No group is a monolith, and I'm making some overly generalized observations. There are no value judgements here, everyone engages with games differently.

Reading adventures with the intent to run them

Now, this is probably the meat of the issue - what happens when you want to actually run an adventure? What makes a good adventure for the purposes of running it? How much plot is too much? My running hypothesis above is that the only essential element is the dungeon design, why not just do that and nothing else?

This, my friends, is the heart of the question - how do I engage with published content when I want to run it. I personally really enjoy having the material available in lore and plot heavy adventures, for different reasons. Likewise, I err towards having more information over less.

Let's break this down a little - the reason I prefer more information is I really like to understand what the author was trying to build upon before running a prebuilt module. If I'm engaging with a module in the first place, I'm going to want to use the information in it to run the game - otherwise, I wouldn't use a module in the first place. Past that, the more information I have about what the designer's intent was, the more I can extrapolate, elaborate, remix, and completely change as I see fit.

For stories with a lot of plot, the adventure gives an undercurrent of what's happening in the world. I'll use Blood Lords as an example, as it's one of Paizo's newer (and, in my opinion, better) modules and I'll try to keep it as spoiler free as possible. From the very beginning of the 6-book adventure path, there's an underlying plot thread. There's a big bad, he's up to no good, and he's got a far-reaching plan that he's trying to enact. Awesome! Now I've got someone with a motivation to change and adapt his plot as things are thwarted or dealt with.

"But won't you just have to railroad the characters onto a path to tell them that story?" you may be saying. To this, I say - no, you don't. Because I'm not necessarily just regurgitating the story to them. I'm using the plot of the story to drive a series of NPC motivations, and then letting the world unfold based on the players' and characters' actions. If they want to go off and explore somewhere else on the map for a while, excellent - I can give them some things to do there. If they want to go off and do a hex crawl for a while: awesome! Nothing in the world at this point is remaining static - things are playing out in the background, and will impact them as things change. Perhaps we find ourselves in a totally different place than the module intended, but I've got a lot of material to play with.

It's probably worth noting that my group is highly collaborative, and we're generally playing to tell a story together - and we tend to play in a character driven manner. 

So in that, the plot gives me a menu of options for how things could unfold and I can extrapolate from there. I get the feeling from interactions I've had, other people see the plot as a shackle - something that must be adhered to in order to advance the adventure. I don't see it that way - I see it as a thread that connects pieces of the puzzle together, and I can rearrange that puzzle however I see fit.

Likewise, on the lore side of things - that is a treasure trove of great ideas that can be used to adapt and change. I prefer to have more over less in this category too. It's fine that you give me a wand of fireballs as part of a treasure drop, tell me why it's there. Who dropped it? Do they miss it? Are they dead? Are they still looking for "wandy" their favorite wand?

What's the cabbage dragon's motivation?!

My group and I frequently come up with new details on the fly, riffing on one another with call-and-response in order to build out the world and our characters places in it - but I love to have material to play with that could wind up being really cool. There are ideas in there we may never have come up with, and if something's bad - I change it.

Another thing I've discussed with the Shadowdark community and other OSR friends in general: the belief that it's more work to remove things than to add them. That's not really how I operate, let the author of the work give me things to riff off of, and if they'll land flat - take them out.

I think part of the reason why this is the case is that sometimes, we can get stuck in our rut. One of my favorite homebrew systems came out of a simple rule for myself: no more undead. They don't exist. You can't use them. Go. (You see, dear reader, I love undead. If you're in a game I'm running you'll probably see one. They're a crutch).

So, with plot and lore out of the way, that leaves Dungeon Design. Here, too, I prefer more details. Tell me what's in the room and why it's there. Do not tell the players why those things are there, let them puzzle it out. However, I want to know why those things remain - there are a myriad of reasons why I prefer to know what the author was thinking, but ultimately it comes down to "sometimes my players are going to figure it out, and sometimes it's more satisfying to have an extremely thought out explanation that we don't have to come up with".

Now, of course, in the lack of that - there are a ton of experienced GM tricks that one can use to come up with an answer. My group's favorite is "I'm not sure, why is it there and how do you know that?" which usually comes up with interesting hooks to go explore more. But sometimes it's nice to have an "Oh yeah, I know why that's there - and it's awesome" to pull from as well.

It's worth reiterating that I want all of this for GM knowledge - not player knowledge. I don't want to just regurgitate the info to the players, they need to engage with it and see it for themselves. A key example of where I think this is well done is Rappan Athuk by Frog God Games. In one of the levels there's a Deathknight. Chilling in his tomb. Under a river. Under a bunch of silt. There's almost no way the players would find or even engage with him. And yet, in his room descriptions, it says who he is, why he is down there, and how he relates to the rest of the level. That's awesome information for me to draw from, to give him more "life".

Some other general observations from how I engage with materials / games in general

Random Tables

I'm going to just come out and say it, I hate random encounter tables. They're like my least favorite thing about the hobby. I very much prefer to either have a scripted thing, or a pool of things, or just a "player 2, you hear something in the darkness on your watch, what is it!"

Relatedly, I also dislike random treasure tables - at their best, they produce results that can be interesting but at worst they only produce completely incongruous and confusing results. Why was that human cultist wizard carrying a shield? Why wasn't he using it? I can come up with an answer to those questions - but unless they advance the world or the plot, I don't care. Perhaps the player's don't care either. At that point, it becomes a book keeping task. Something to sell back in town, assuming you can carry it out.

I think this is another point of divergence from me and the wider OSR community. Folks who love OSR games also seem to love random tables. From some conversations I've had - I think this is a concept of "Oracles as a surprise to everyone at the table". Letting the dice fall and presenting interesting (and frequently nonsensical results) and figuring out why (or not) is part of the fun. The Mythic System, for example, embraces this and uses Oracles all the way up to emulating the GM along with tables for word association to move the plot forward.

I ran the Mythic system in GM emulation mode for my regular group once. They hated it.

Player Driven action vs Character Driven Action

One of the most...confusing... things to me about OSR games in general is that the focus generally is on the world, and on the players - not their characters. It seems to me (and I'm no expert, and my opinion is evolving over time) that in an OSR game, the characters are extraneous to the gameplay. Their skills are inconsequential, their personalities entertaining - but ultimately unimportant, their background extraneous, etc. They're simply a conduit for the player to interact with the world.

In a sense, the world is the character. - Ary

In contrast, my group and I play very Character-driven games. The plot, the world, and everything else is centered on the character's impact on it. The world moves on its own without their input, but the shared story is built and driven by them. They're important. Death is significant and meaningful. While the dice may be cruel sometimes, character death has much more emotional impact if it doesn't come at the hand of a single failed save.

Kudos to Shadowdark RPG here, it emphasizes the need to telegraph danger, and if the players decide to go ahead and risk it, well, that may happen. ...on the other hand, if you've got 1 hp, well, you're probably doomed.

I think there are any number of reasons why the OSR style of play calls to folks. One is that I think many folks from the 3e era of D&D played it in a way that I find extremely boring. I saw a message on Discord which boiled down to "I'm so sick of 'roll to see if you successfully solve the puzzle / persuade the person / etc." (If you're reading this poke me, I can't find it anymore and I don't recall who said it).

This is super interesting to me, because in story-based games that I run, if you don't narrate the what you're doing, you don't make the roll. You can't just say "I use my 'Archaeology' skill to examine the artifact" - you still need to say what you're doing first, and then we adjudicate what relevant character traits are applicable. But, discussing the topic with my group, it does feel like there's a whole category of groups out there that only engage with the mechanics of the game and not the narrative. Which is perfectly fine if that's your thing! But it's not the only way to engage with even the crunchier systems.

This might be why I like PbtA games so much. You never, ever, trigger moves first - moves are triggered by narrative development, not the other way around. Sometimes, even, the move name and the narrative are extremely well tied together. Avatar TLAB RPG has a move for the Elder playbook called "Around here somewhere" - it lets you name an NPC who happens to be nearby, and frequently you can just signal the move you're using like so:

Oh! Aunt Reshelda! She lives around here somewhere. I bet she can help us stash this loot until the heat dies down.
If you're interested in advise on how PbtA works there's an amazing fan-made guide up on the Dungeon World Downloads Page and it does an excellent job of breaking down how the system works. It's specific to Dungeon World, but the advice is generally applicable to the core mechanic.

Contrast that to OSR games, where death is generally just a few moments away - at the hands of a trap, or a wandering monster, or one bad decision (Tomb of Horrors, I'm looking at you). And that's perfectly fine when the characters aren't the center of the narrative. The dungeon claimed yet another treasure seeker, and yet it endures. The creatures that live there move on, the sands continue to fall to the bottom of the hourglass.

The point is to have the players do interesting things. Engage with interesting set pieces. Solve puzzles with the power of their creativity, without character skills or anything beyond minimal stats to act as a crutch. It's about finding interesting ways to engage with the world with the resources around you, it's what you can do, not what your character is good at.

That's a very different way to engage with the hobby than I'm used to (and indeed, most comfortable with) and to finally tie it back to the theme at hand - it lends itself to a different style of writing adventures. If the characters are not the focus, and the entertainment value is derived from interesting interactions with the sandbox, I can totally see how more information can feel restrictive or stifling - it can get in the way of poking the environment and seeing what happens if you feel like you have to engage with it as it was written.

Wrapping it up

Okay, this has turned into an extremely long post, and there's a lot of other more general observations on the hobby in general I kind of want to talk about, but I'm going to have to wrap it up and tie it back to the overall narrative.

I think it ultimately boils down to the way I engage with the hobby lends itself to wanting a lot of meat and narrative thrust to published adventures - more ideas to play with and riff on, more things to inform and make the world alive, more, more more. It's like fuel on a burning fire that spreads sparks of new ideas elsewhere and gives me a lot of things to work with.

I also like to write like that, for similar reasons - I want to give the reader ideas to riff on, plot threads and hooks to unravel, and the like. Turns out, a reasonable number of people like the exact opposite in what they read which has been enlightening and an excellent opportunity to write in a way that I wouldn't normally.

Thanks for coming along for the journey, I'll likely write more on the topic soon, under the "musings" tag - keep an eye out or subscribe to the RSS feed.