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This article grew out of discussions between Johnn and myself concerning the Q&A in issue #300 of Roleplaying Tips. Johnn happened to mention that he was currently running a campaign based on published modules, and I was interested in comparing the approaches to handling them to best effect in terms of the difference to a custom-written scenario. I wrote my part promptly, back in 2006 – and it’s just been sitting around ever since, waiting for Johnn to write his. Once we started Campaign Mastery, the idea was that Part 1 would appear in one place and Part 2 in the other, cross-promoting both.

Well, Johnn no longer writes for Campaign Mastery, and I rarely have time to write for Roleplaying Tips. So I doubt part two will ever get written.

But that’s no reason to throw away a good article. So here’s “To Module Or Not?”, an article about incorporating Published Modules into your campaign, freshly updated for Campaign Mastery.

I should start by admitting that I write 90% of my own scenarios, or more, and find it necessary to substantially rewrite any published scenarios that I integrate into my campaign. Which of course raises the question of why I feel the need to do so? What are the different ways of using “canned modules”? What advantages do they offer over custom-written scenarios? And what might you be giving up to reap those rewards?

The Differences: So exactly how do published modules differ from custom modules, anyway?

There are a lot of ways to consider scenarios. There’s the linear model, where event A follows event B – whether that be the PCs following a trail of clues (or breadcrumbs); there’s the reactive model, where the goal is always to let the PCs do as they will and just to throw opposing forces into the mix to make their lives interesting; and there’s the situational model, in which things are happening all over the place and the PCs can either get involved or not, as they see fit. Nor are these the only choices; there are variations and combinations and subtypes of all of these. Rather than get into a debate about the best approach, lets just say that all campaigns consist of these elements in different proportions, and move on.

Most published modules are very strong in the linear plot elements. That can be very beneficial to the time-pressed GM, because he only has to focus on one small subsection of the overall plot at a time. The module will give some idea of what encounters might result, will (usually) give characteristics for the NPCs, will have area descriptions and pre-placed treasures, and so on. The GM can concentrate on tweaking those encounters, thinking about issues of presentation, and so on.

All this is work that the writer of an original scenario has to do for himself. He might be able to lift inspiration – rooms, NPCs, whatever – from other sources, but he has to put them all together. Even more important – and sometimes more difficult – is the need for inspiration in the first place. Published modules may have only one author, but they will have been edited by someone, and playtested a number of times, and most of the likely courses of action – and their impact on the overall scenario – will be spelt out. All of those voices contribute to a deeper and more polished product.

On the other hand, published modules do not cope well with house rules. They may not fit with the power level of the characters – too weak, too strong. The background might not integrate with your campaign world, depending on the level of detail and the degree of difference between that world and the published settings. They often don’t fit well with each other – its often much harder to follow one canned module with another. They can make assumptions about what the PCs can – and can’t – do. They can be conducive to railroad plots. And there is always the risk that the players will have read the module themselves.

Custom modules can focus on what your Players’ characters are actually capable of. They are fully integrated with the campaign background and house rules from word one. That permits one to follow another more seamlessly. They can go in any direction desired – which is to say, they don’t have to be quite as linear in the design. They are (in theory) exactly as tough as you want them to be.

So there are a number of important differences to take into consideration.

Time Requirements: How long does it take you to prepare for a session relative to the playing duration of that session?

This depends on how much work you have to do – trite, but true!

Homegrown Custom Adventures

With custom, home-grown, adventures, I’ve had sessions where the NPCs and settings had all been established in prior scenarios, and only the situation confronting the PCs was different. That took 5-10 minutes per hour of playing time to write. I have had sessions where I had to detail and populate an empire, its politics, economics, history, major characters, geography, etc etc etc. That took about 25 hours for each hour of play – and most of the results weren’t even noticed by the players until several sessions afterwards. So the time requirements are generally a lot more variable from week to week with custom scenarios. You have a massive glut of work, and then quite a lengthy period without much work to be done.

If you have good time management skills, you can spread the heavy workload out, doing lots of advance preparations that won’t see the light of play for weeks or even months. But that also gives you the advantage that if you don’t have much free time in any particular week, you can pick up the slack the following week – which can be useful when Real Life bites. Overall, I would estimate an average of perhaps 3/4 of an hour for every hour played is needed.

I’m not going to get too specific about how to write scenarios, that’s entirely too big a side-issue for this article! But in general, the process is one of breaking problems and plotlines into smaller pieces. When I first develop a campaign, I’ll work out some overall theme or story arc. This is big picture stuff; the PCs may have input into the outcomes, but overall events are going to take place relating to this big picture whether the PCs get involved or not.

As PCs are proposed by the players, I’ll look at each in terms of bringing some unique perspective or contribution to that overall plotline. I’ll also develop a specific story arc for each PC. I’ll then break each of those story arcs down into individual steps, each of which then forms the basis of a scenario. I’ll also look at the consequences of the events in each step and try and tie them into a later scenario, or (if necessary) add in another scenario. Then I’ll add whatever is needed to give those “key events” a context to operate in, and to give the other characters something to do. All that preparation gives me a synopsis of the campaign, broken down into scenarios.

Each scenario is then broken into locations needed, key developments, key NPCs, and so on – making a list of what’s needed. Then I’ll add in anything that’s needed as a consequence of those items being in the scenario – a Noble implies a retinue, and the typical possessions of a noble, and so on. Once I have detailed the location to whatever extent is necessary, and the NPCs, I will then write any specific dialogue & descriptions that are likely to be necessary; I’ll look at whether or not a prop will be needed; and so on. That’s a lot of work – but because you don’t have to detail any given plot element more than is going to be needed, a lot of it can be glossed over or ignored entirely.

Once I have the basic framework, I’ll consider where and how the PCs could change the direction of the adventure by doing something unusual or unexpected. I’ll consider modes of failure, where a PC may fail at a critical task, and look for ways to get the adventure back on track if that happens. I’ll make sure that any major NPCs who aren’t involved but who might have an interest in whatever is going on are either distracted by something else, or think about how they would get involved – and how that might complicate the situation, and how the characters who are supposed to be involved would react.

Canned Adventures

With packaged scenarios, you have to read it; you have to understand it; you have to appreciate the relationship between the different sections and the overall plotline; you have to look for any house rules issues; you have to modify part or all of the background and encounters to fit the campaign background and concepts. You have to get a handle on the significant NPCs, their personalities, and relationships.

You have to consider the long-term impact of the goodies and events within the adventure. You have to identify the assumptions on which the adventure is based and make sure that the campaign doesn’t violate any of them – and vice-versa. You have to make the same checks for script departure points, modes of failure, and outside interference.

You have to contemplate the abilities, personalities, and quirks of your PCs & Players as opposed to the generic types that the module might assume, and may have to modify the entire module to accommodate the characters of your campaign.

All of that often adds up to a lot more time than writing a custom scenario, but the less of that list that you have to worry about, the more attractive canned scenarios become as an alternative. Again, much of this can – and should – be done in advance and not left to the last minute.

Let’s take a typical 20-page scenario; it will take perhaps 4 hours to read it, 2 hours to digest and analyse it; probably a similar amount of time spent on house rules issues (but that might be zero for your campaign); anywhere from 8 hours to zero on background; plus a couple of hours on the major NPCs, and anywhere from one to eight hours on everything else – usually towards the lower end of that range.

From that, you will typically get 45 minutes per page of play – sometimes more, sometimes less. That’s 9-28 hours of work for 15 hours of play, so the level of house rules and existing background to be integrated makes a BIG difference.

On top of that, if you want to convert it to a different power level, or change it’s style to a less linear format, you’re looking at substantial rewriting and modifications – probably the same amount of time that it would take to write a custom scenario. So IF you follow the standard rules USED FOR THE MODULE, and don’t bother too much with background issues, and can play the module more or less AS WRITTEN, a published module takes about half an hour to prepare for each hour of play. On the other hand, if you have all of these complications, you can expect to spend roughly 2-3 hours of prep time for every hour of play.

Preparation Requirements: What do you do to prepare? Any advice or best practices for any of the preparations?

Much of this has been already answered, in discussing how long it takes to make the preparations. But two vital elements in the process were only briefly mentioned and deserve further amplification: Analysis and Planning. These are especially important because they are common to both types of scenario.

Analysis comes in three flavours: Campaign level, Character Level, and Event Level.

  • Campaign Level considers what effect the module, its events, and its setting, are intended to have on the campaign overall. With a published module, there will usually be a synopsis on the back cover, but that talks about the plot within the module, not the effects on everything else. How will the established power structures of the campaign react to the events in the scenario? Before you can answer that, you need to make a quick list of the events within the scenario. Use less than a line for each and be as brief as possible. (Keep this – it makes a handy “road map” for the overall scenario). In less linear scenarios, use small boxes instead and draw lines for the relationships between them. Then jot down some quick notes on those reactions – remembering that the authorities can’t react if they don’t know about something!
  • Character Level considers the major characters of the scenario and how they will interact. The best way of handling this that I’ve come across is a table – possibly a large one (I use A3 pages and a word processor). List the characters evenly down the page and across the page. Label the top row “Subject” and the column “Opinion Of”. Where a character carries out an action in the scenario, you might have a subdivision, a before and after. So the first row of table cells will have all the opinions of and relationships to the first named person (starting, obviously, with how they think of themselves). Try to describe each relationship or opinion in only a single word or two at the most. Again, this crib sheet can be invaluable when running the scenario, so once you understand the relationships, don’t throw it away. I like to include the PCs on this table as well, and summarise their likely reactions in pencil and their actual reactions in pen. If there’s something a character feels strongly about, that helps in the next stage of analysis.
  • Event Level analysis is all about predicting what work you need to do – if PC#1 is a diplomat, they will tend to talk more than act, so you should give thought to speech patterns and perhaps even to preparing additional dialogue for the NPCs to be encountered in the next session’s play. If they have exhibit violent paranoia about Drow motives, you might need to consider alternatives to the encounter with the exiled Drow Merchant in chapter 3, or whatever. These basically consist of keeping a running list, by PC, of the “actual reactions” (and expected reactions) from past scenarios, and comparing them with the list of events and NPCs that you created in the first two analysis steps.

The other factor to be discussed here is planning. If you know what you have to do, you can schedule the time needed to get it done in advance; leaving it all until the night before you play can be a recipe for disaster! I like to plan what work needs to be done as minutely as possible, but I’m from a computer programming background. The truism in that line of work is that of the wedge – every ten minutes spent planning and organising the work to be done saves an hour part-way through and a week at the end of the project.

It isn’t quite so severe when you’re talking about an RPG, but the fact is that knowing what needs to be done, and prioritising it, always means that you are better prepared to referee when the time comes. I try to break the work down to the point of having a number of 10-minute tasks listed, then prioritise them. And remember that if a priority-1 task can’t be started until a priority-2 or -3 task is finished, that priority-2 or -3 task is actually priority-1 (or the priority-1 task should be rated as less important!)

In Play – using the scenario: What surprises occur during sessions, what curve balls are thrown at you? How does the scenario source play into these twists, and how do you cope?

It doesn’t matter where you get the scenario, they players are going to throw curve balls at you from time to time. The two types of scenario have different risk levels in that regard due to their natures.

In theory, the risks are smaller with custom-written scenarios because you can specifically prepare for the most likely responses of your particular players; but that also means that when they do take a trip into the left field, it tends to be a major and significant departure. Published modules, on the other hand, carry a greater risk of departure from the script, because they are more tightly bound to their built-in script; but at the same time, those departures tend to be smaller in significance and are (hopefully) minimised in frequency by the playtesting.

Recovering from those unexpected turns of events is also likely to be very different because of the nature of the scenarios. With a published module (if you’ve done your homework), you will have a clear idea of what is supposed to happen next and how it all ties together, so you have a better opportunity to get things back on track. With a custom-written module, there is often no clear road map to follow, certainly none as clearly delineated as in the published module. On the other hand, you are in a stronger position, because your destination can change while never letting the players know how thoroughly they had screwed your plans. So long as the overall objective at the campaign level is achieved, you don’t care about the intervening steps – you just want everyone to have fun.

In other words, the less prone to plot-trains that you are, and the better you think on your feet, the more suited you are to running custom-written scenarios. (But if you’re too good at coming up with answers on the run, you can nevertheless be accused of plot trains – it’s happened to me!)

The most important advice – regardless of the type of scenario – is to work out the significance of the diversion in terms of the overall scenario goals. That lets you focus on the important consequences and “go with the flow” for the rest. I always like to have the opposition’s plans worked out in advance – if the PCs stop interfering for a while, they will see the consequences of those plans as they come to fruition. If you know what the NPCs are doing and why, you can adjust to any tricky ideas the players have. The plan might change, the goals won’t.

I also make sure that whenever I insert a difficult situation, puzzle, or problem, into the PCs lives, I always make sure there is at least one way out of it – and where there’s one, there will usually be 20. Those two principles have gotten me out of many problems – my players still remember both times I was totally gobsmacked by an unexpected twist!

Does one format appeal to you more than the other – and why?

While both have their strengths and weaknesses, I prefer custom modules for four reasons: Customisation, Integration, Investment, and Ease.

Customisation:

You can make the scenario exactly what you want it to be. Well, almost. You always have the independence of the PCs taking you places you didn’t expect to go, and there’s always the question of how well you can write your scenarios. DON’T expect to be as good as a Published Author straight out of the starting blocks!

Integration:

The more extensively-developed your campaign world, the more your scenarios can grow out of that development, and link back into it. Letting the PCs make a visible difference to the course of events – even if only through the ripple or domino effects – strengthens the campaign.

Investment:

Every hour of preperation time that you spend working on a custom scenario is an investment in the campaign world, because it usually relates to the history and culture of that world. That means that the work is not just useful for this scenario, it can be reused again and again. Published modules are relatively self-contained – so once you’ve finished playing it, most of the work involved is gone.

And finally,

Ease:

Because I usually have such detailed worlds, with house rules etc, there is a lot more work involved in adapting a published module to that world. So for me, its much less work to write a custom adventure than to deal with a Published Module. This is, of course, a self-fulfilling prophecy; as indicated, the more you develop your world, the more suited to custom modules it becomes, which further develop the world.

Does that mean that you don’t use canned adventures?

Yes and No.

As I said at the start, most of my adventures are custom-written. I have no plans to utilize any canned modules in any of the campaigns that I am currently running – with one exception, which I’ll come to shortly. Without having done so, I would not have any basis for the prep numbers that I quoted earlier.

Fumanor

I have integrated, and run, “The Grave Of The Prince Of Lies” as part of the Fumanor: One Faith campaign, as I explained in On The Origins Of Orcs, Chapters 5-10, virtually without change – but that was because the module background fitted into and expanded on the campaign background virtually perfectly.

Champions/Zenith-3

More significantly, in the Champions campaigns (before they became the Zenith-3 campaign), there were a lot of canned modules used to comprise the major campaign event, Ragnerok. Some of these were in one campaign, some in another, but – with suitable modification – they came together into a seamless whole (in conjunction with some custom adventures) to describe the leadup to the big show.

Contemplate this list, if you will:

  1. Operation Fastpass (Top Secret)
  2. Rapid Strike (Top Secret)
  3. Lady In Distress (Top Secret)
  4. Force (Villains & Vigilantes)
  5. Assassin (Villains & Vigilantes)
  6. Executive One (Top Secret, I think)
  7. Thunder Over Jotunheim (Marvel Superheros)
  8. Dr Apocalypse (Villains & Vigilantes)
  9. Death Duel With The Destroyers (Vllains & Vigilantes)
  10. Flight 412 (?)
  11. Breeder Bombs – break into 6 adventures – (Marvel Superheros?)
  12. Danger At Dunwater (AD&D)
  13. Havoc adventure I (Champions)
  14. Havoc adventure II (Champions)
  15. Havoc adventure III (Champions)
  16. Heros (?)
  17. Terminator (?)
  18. Revenge Of Professor Terror(?)
  19. Dawn Of DNA (V&V?)
  20. Snake Pit (Champions?)
  21. Preemptive Strike (Champions?)
  22. Fault Line (?)
  23. Pharoah (AD&D)
  24. The Keep (5 adventures)
  25. Crisis Of Champions (Champions?)
  26. Primus / Demon (Champions)
  27. Target Hero (Champions?)
  28. Preemptive Strike (?)
  29. Circle / Mete Adventure I (Champions)
  30. Circle / Mete Adventure II (Champions)
  31. Circle / Mete Adventure III (Champions)
  32. Circle / Mete Adventure IV (Champions)
  33. Circle / Mete Adventure V (Champions)
  34. Ragnerok & Roll (Marvel Superheros?)
  35. The Great Supervillain Contest (Champions, Multiple adventures)

That’s 45-plus-the-GSVC adventures, all rolled into one big plotline (with some cherries on top).

Warcry

In the Warcry campaign, I have integrated a number of Space Master, Star Frontiers, and Gamma World adventures. But I can’t say which ones because a number of them haven’t happened yet and I don’t want to warn my players.

Publication Rights

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: If you ever intend to publish your work, be VERY careful about what canned modules you even look at. It’s entirely too easy to accidentally violate copyright.

Homegrown Originals are a lot safer.

How do you choose?

Once the decision has been made to integrate a canned module into a campaign, there are really only two criteria:

  • Does it add to the campaign? and,
  • How much work will it be?

Value, and Price. What more is there to say?

Is your way the “right way” or the “Only way?”

Absolutely not. It’s the way my campaigns works and hence, the more your campaigns resemble mine, the more likely it is that it will also work for you. I know a referee who ran an AD&D (later 2nd Ed AD&D, then D&D 3.0) Campaign for over a decade using nothing but canned modules and an established, published campaign setting. He rarely changed anything in the modules, had little-to-no house rules, and had very little action taking place outside the Published Modules (and most of that described off-camera as “after last time, X did this, Y did that, and Z did the other. Now you’re all gathered….” and into the next module.

In fact, the whole point of this article is so that you can compare and contrast my methods of working with your own – not because there’s anything wrong with the way either of us run our campaigns, but because the techniques and approaches that we’ve developed might help someone else – or might inspire someone else to tell us how THEY do it!

On a completely unrelated issue, it seems the spammers are back, running the same spambots / DoS attack as they did last year – from the same servers, believe it or not. Having recognized the pattern, I am once again selectively blocking the Internet Addresses from which these attacks are originating. As before, if no attacks occur in roughly an 8 hour period, the block on an IP will be lifted – unless one returns a second time. And yes, I am documenting the addresses involved. In the meantime, if you have trouble commenting or accessing the site, that’s the reason – and all I can suggest is that you try again in a few hours.

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