Saturday, November 21, 2015

What makes an old school module good?

I've been musing about this since I started running Al-Qadim Church, and I suppose before hand too. I've read most of Bryce Lynch's reviews, but perhaps more enlightening is how much I feel he's largely accurate in what makes old school modules good. His review standards are pretty much a must read and should be a guide for most people producing old school modules today, whatever rules set they're for.

I think I disagree with Bryce on a few points, but that's more a matter of style than substance. I'm happy with canonical monsters in a generic fantasy because they're easier to replace and I'm not sure I've played enough D&D to get absolutely sick of using and reusing the same old things. I'm generally happy with something less gonzo, but that's mostly because I like to know how much whimsy is going to be in my fantasy. But I want to hit a few highlights:

Loops and multiple pathways. People have been talking about the Jaqueys and a particular less-linear style of dungeon. I bought copies of Caverns of Thracia and The Dark Tower a while back, and I have to say they do look pretty good. I'd love to run them sometime. The idea is a dungeon should have a couple ways in, and shouldn't just be a line of 5-7 rooms. A lot of games over the years stick to pretty linear dungeons, or maybe mega-man style dungeons where there's a couple linear paths each leading to a different end. I'm not sure I'd agree that every single dungeon needs this (the spice of life, and all) or that this needs to be heavily used. But having run a few dungeons with these features, I can say they're nice to have even if they're discovered late or not really used much by the PCs. It gives NPCs escape routes, monsters ways to sneak up behind the party, and some uncertainty about the actual layout of things. Any dungeon of reasonable size ought to make use of this.

Wandering monster random encounter tables. These give a good sense of what types of creatures are in the dungeon, even if you never use them. And what's better is when they're considered random encounters, rather than wandering monsters. In a dungeon, I want to be able to bring other enemies in if the PCs are dilly-dallying. I want to have some ideas for what else could have been around if things are too easy. And I want some options that are full of flavor in addition to (or instead of) crunch. Simple things like vermin are nice to for flavor of an abandoned ruin, while things like "hobgoblin war party lead by a dwarf" really make you think. I've had fun with a few of the Al-Qadim monster tables as the party randomly sees things like a horse. What a banal encounter, until the party opts to chase it and catch it. Their questions lead me to debate whether the horse was important to the story or not, and ultimately decide whose horse it was. Similarly, after rolling a sea hag as a random encounter (with a non-hostile reaction) she becomes an easy way to remove a bit of treasure from the PCs and can be tied into a previous encounter with a massive turtle that I rolled before. If I'm spending money on a module, it really ought to include some of this stuff because it makes the DM's job easier.

Concise writing. If I have to read through a 32 page module, I want to get the maximum amount out of it. Flavor text is nice, but its best as a spice or at most side dish. Room descriptions need to complement the map: there's no use describing the things already on the map unless its really important. The descriptions of NPCs are best when they include at least one quirk (a visual aspect, note on their dialect, personality type, etc.) that tells me how they can be used. Background can be kept to a minimum. Largely the players may not care whose tomb they're looting, and if they did they'd spend a bit of time investigating that beforehand in town. So things like rumors can give a lot of stuff away without it needing to be repeated as five pages of backstory on dead NPCs that might not matter to anything else.

Overview. Here's one place where I may differ from others, but I want the quick DM's summary of what's happening. Why is the module fun. What will the PCs do? What are the most important NPCs or encounters? Is there one or two sentences of backstory that are important to the adventure? The overview or summary, when well done (i.e. concise writing) is very helpful and worth a quarter to a half page of text. Some recent adventures (I'm looking at Out of the Abyss and Deep Carbon Observatory) are disturbingly lacking in this.

Modularity. This doesn't get mentioned by Bryce in his standards, but I want things I can easily modify to fit my game. I want to be able to replace Orcs or Hobgoblins with humans or something else appropriate. I need to swap out deities and demons for the ones in my setting. I'd rather have a few NPCs in a nearby town than the whole town itself. I do like a wilderness map and possibly a town name and images of the dungeon, but a lot of the backstory or factions are things I'm likely to disregard and change so I can place the adventure in my world (or, in the case of church, my vision of someone else's setting).

All this said, there are some pretty good modules out there alongside some pretty bad ones. I'll have to compile my own list of good ones, but it'll be largely culled from Bryce's suggestions.

1 comment:

  1. I'll strongly second the summary and concise writing. Now that I'm re-reading Out of the Abyss I'm fully grokking just how hard it would be to pick up the book and run it without a close reading of the entire book. It's a little frustrating that information important to a decision the PCs make in Chapter 2 is buried in Chapter 7 and that the plot that drives the adventure isn't spelled out until Chapter 13 (if I recall, correct, in any case it was deep in the second half of the book).

    And I'd add Organization to the list as a standard. Running A Red and Pleasant Land by the seat of my pants is extremely easy because I know just where to go when I need to look something up, but with Out of the Abyss, I've prepped the first two chapters and I've already written out two pages of notes, re-typed out a set of random terrain/encounter tables so that I have all the tables on a single page, created a Pursuit tracking sheet, copied and pasted the food/water rules from the Basic rules PDF and created a carrying capacity chart. And I know I'd be doing more prep if I hadn't sprung for some fancy digital maps so I had clean maps without DM notations to show players and hadn't lucked upon two separate NPC aids for the 11! NPCs that are important to the start of the campaign. One of the most frustrating things is that when OOTA references another D&D product, it gives the chapter, at most, and not the page, which, whatever, I get that maybe a reprint would have the Madness rules on a slightly different page, but on the other hand it's 3pgs out of a 27 page chapter, so without jotting down the page in my notes or marking with a sticky note I'd be constantly shuffling through my DMG. The same with monsters, when you look at the Grell entry in the random encounters section it has all the fluff and flavor, but you're left on your own for finding the stats, which isn't too bad for the Grell, but for things like the various Giant Spiders where they got stuck inexplicably in the back section of the MM as a "beast" it would be handy to have the page.