... now with 35% more arrogance!

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Deep Modules, Convenient Modules

There an argument on Google+ about which module style is best:
  • a terser style, similar to the one-page dungeon format, focused on convenience and ease of use; or,
  • a "fully-realized" style, where the module author has a particular vision and explains it thoroughly  so that there is no doubt why everything is where it is, why every monster does what it does.
Zak S. triggered the argument with his blog posts critically analyzing a couple modules. He's clearly supporting the first style, and bluntly puts it this way: "The entire point of a module is it's convenient".

James Raggi is on the other side. He wants the author's voice to shine through, and doesn't like modules where he has to write additional material.

I think they aren't exactly opposites, but more like twin ideals that, frankly, most module writers fail at simultaneously. For one, I don't think most of them get the concept that more words does not equal a thorough explanation, or that more detail does not automatically mean more useful detail. For example, describing every item that can be found in the ogre's kitchen, as opposed to just the unique or important items.

Another failing: standard practice is a piecemeal approach to the details of allegiance  factions, creature plans, origin stories, and other connections between elements in the module. This forces readers to shuffle back and forth between room descriptions to try to make sense of the whole pattern, plus it bulks up each individual room description. A better practice would be to separate all of the explanatory stuff from the practical stuff, restricting room keys to the barest minimum necessary for use in actual play ("Troll: loyal to Ogre-King. Goblin named Bruce: loyal only out of fear.")

It's true that some modules include explanatory stuff before getting into the room keys, but this material again suffers from the first failing: too many useless details and padding, not enough focus on background detail and interconnections that will actually matter. A better method would be something Brendan suggested in the G+ debate: have the equivalent of a one-page dungeon (barebones dungeon key) following a full description of what's going on, who's where, and why. The introductory material should explain everything the GM needs to know about the dungeon, including why specific magic items are there, why certain things haven't been found, rebellions, cliques, secret societies, relationships. You should not have to read the actual room keys beforehand, and once you've read the introduction, the room keys should trigger memories of what you read rather than provide new information.


  1. I generally prefer terse, evocative modules. I like modules to be useable with no prior study. If I have to spend a lot of time studying a module, I feel that I might as well use that time making my own.

    James Raggi is publishing in June my module entitled Dungeons of the Unknown. It is a terse module meant to inspire the DM rather than tell him what to do. I thought of Zak several times while putting it together.

    1. I haven't read your Isle of the Unknown, but from online discussions I'd thought that in order to understand the mages resident on the island, you had to read the entire key to realize how many there were, and think about their relation to one another? Meaning you couldn't run any of those encounters well unless you'd already studied the module?

  2. The problem with the second type is it presupposes the author's vision is actually worth the effort. I've yet to see one that is. By that I mean I've never seen a module that I wanted to use without changing.

    What I'd like to see is more people just straight up releasing their own DM notes, with maybe some references to images or music if they feel the need to convey a specific mood. If the author's vision changes wildly in different DM's interpretations, I don't think that's a bad thing.

  3. I have long prophesied a death-feud between James and Zak. The solution is a Hell in a Cell match next month at Extreme Houserules.