Saturday, November 20, 2010

A More Modular Module?

Old School Jump has a very insightful post titled The Outbound View that cuts through the gamist gobbledy-gook BS and explains the very simple, and often overlooked, reason so many of the old modules from TSR were packed to the gills with encounters.  Far from being unrealistic or stupid, it's a good way to both give the customer more for their money, and to provide a wide range of encounters that can be customized and flexibly re-arranged or ported over to another scenario, module or setting area at the whim of the end user.

This approach is a legacy of the old days when such products as modules were geared towards the active participation of the end-user in creatively restructuring and tinkering with everything.  Customization was king.  Before corporatization and standardization and the ruthless pursuit of conformity and franchise-appropriateness superceded personal creativity, engagement and imagination.

Reading this excellent mini-article reminded me of an old notion that came up from time to time in the old gaming group I was part of back in the Eighties regarding modules--that the modules were not all that terribly modular in nature.  They were certainly self-contained and qualify as modules in that respect, but they were also pre-set-up and strung together and all arranged ahead of time, often for a particular implied or overtly acknowledged setting such as Gygaxes' Greyhawk, and most were approached as being modular and thus amenable to hobbyist-cobbling and DM-revisionism. You could cut & paste sections, copy-out items or spells, borrow monsters, re-use encounters and re-draw chunks of maps or whatever to your heart's content, but outside of the classic Dungeon Geomorph-Sets, the modules themselves were not really modular in terms of being buckets of resources to re-assemble for yourself like an Erector set, but rather were complete pre-designed and pre-built adventures. They were model kits complete with diagrams, charts, and instructions.  They were arranged into a predetermined pseudo-narrative, or sequence of networked and interconnected encounters. A truly modular module would provide a set of discrete encounters that an end-user could mix and match at will in order to develop their own scenario, adapting it and customizing it all right from the start to fit into their particular setting of choice or to meet the specific needs of their situation, group or ambition.  An excellent example of this more granular sort of modularity is being explored in a very intriguing way by Monte Cook with his Dungeon-a-Day site.  This notion goes farther than just a bunch of random tables.  It's not just another excuse for dice-rolling, but it would fit into a flow-chart style of scenario structuring reminiscent of first edition Gammaworld's artifact usage sub-system.  The idea is still a bit raw and not totally formed or clear just yet, but it is something that I'll be kicking around over the weekend.

I like the basic idea of a more Geomorph-like, more modular module that provides distinct encounters and such elements devoid of any setting details that the end-user can use like a plug-and-play resource that does not deliver a pre-made adventure, but rather puts a wide array of pieces before you and lets you string them together to your heart's content in the very best tradition of the Old School approach.  Yes, there have been a few things that have come close to this approach in the past, but I think that I have the germ of a strange new idea for how to do this sort of thing, and I aim to see what I can knock together one of these days--maybe after the holidays, after I'm caught-up on the current back-log of projects.  At least it fits-in with all those peculiar geomorphs that I've been doodling...


  1. Interesting.

    I go the other route and detail an area or several locations, the NPCS 'behind the scenes' actions/motivations, and provide maps at various scales to zoom in and out providing a broad overview, many 'hooks', and a few suggestions as to what will become apparent independent of the PC's lack of participation in the event-complex of the times. I find adventure scripting tedious, and feel uncomfortable with railroadiness, and use the above process to try and provide what you are describing, but set within a definite ... milieu. I'm certain, though, that UWoM Adventure Locales could be used by xD&D groups without much difficulty --unless they are tied to linear crawls.

  2. When I run Bazra, Talibarr, Xembor or Riskail, my process is usually a lot like you describe. I prepare a one-page cheat-sheet of notes that provides a sampling of the various options, opportunities and encounters in the area, plus any lingering stuff from a previous session that might need to be dealt with. Restricting it to one page keeps things workable, and allows for a good deal of informed improvisation, which makes the game really come alive, when it works.

    The groups that explore these settings aren't recreating anything, nor are they simulating anything, what they are doing is participating in the ongoing creative process--they are involved and participating first-hand in the creation and evolution of this stuff. But that's how I prefer to handle a regular group.

    When I design scenarios for conventions, etc., then I develop and plan out things so that I have the maximum amount of flexibility in handling/addressing whatever choicesor decisions the players come up with. Even the Remgarn scenarios where the player characters begin the game dragooned and press-ganged into the service of a despicable petty tyrant who has placed a kill-collar around their necks, as blatant a railroad-style start as you can get, even then the characters can do practically anything, go almost anywhere, accept or reject any part of the set-up...and that is when things get to be fun. The players who realize that they can be subversive, find a way to escape or get the collar removed, etc. are a lot more fun than those who roll over and try to do what they're told. Remgarn is never satisfied, rarely pleased, and wouldn't know loyalty if it bit him in the butt. I miss the horrible little runt.

    Scripting the plot is tedious and worthless, unless it's for fiction, which I still think works best when done in broad strokes.

    Railroading is a waste of time. Whatever the situation that I set up for the characters at the beginning, it is up to them to drive, direct and determine things going forward. I handle the weather, the infrastructure, the local color, etc., and they are the ones who take things onwards and make it all come alive.

    I dislike passive observers in my games.

    I haven't run a linear crawl yet.

    Thanks for the feedback--you've given me some ideas for a slew of future posts...

  3. Doh! All that and I didn't explain what I meant by a 'more modular module.'

    The ultimate point of what I'm kicking around with this line of thinking is that most of the GMs/DMs/REFs I've met and tlaked with over the years tend to not find a whole of any real use in most published modules precisely because the modules are too planned-out, too scripted up-front and they aren't looking for someone else to dictate to them what happens in their setting. What they do find useful are specific encounters, traps, etc. tha tthey can cut & paste into their own set-up and modify to their hearts content.

    A close example of this sort of thing is/was Grimtooth's Traps, the old booklets of traps that could get ported into any game, even though quite a few of them were silly, there was a few that would work or inspire ideas. That came close, in terms of how it handled traps, but it's not exactly what I have in mind. I'll need to work on this a bit more and see if I can put together some examples of what I'm thinking about.

  4. @Lady T: I think I understand where you're coming from - I have been working on a post about that which I think might help others to see

    @N: I know you'd like that post! Kudos for mentioning Grimtooth in your comment - I'm a big fan and (if I recall) still have Traps and Traps Too!

  5. Good stuff, both of you! :D
    --Looking forward to the posts engendered by this discussion. :)

    Back to the irridium-mine for me...
    (is a 10k word limit too little or too much for an AD&D intro to Urutsk?)

  6. It's not the length of the Introduction, it's how well you get people to read it, understand it and then act from that place of understanding...either jumping off a cliff, shaving their heads or rolling dice and actually playing the game--whichever outcome you are most interested in precipitating at a distance by way of your black mag--mind con--marketi--most excellent prose.

    Good luck with the AD&D expansion of the Urutsk empire. Iridium much easier than Carterific ntrium...ala Warrior of Worlds End...the first Lin Carter book I've read that I've actually liked...though not for the reasons he hoped, I dare wager...


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