Saturday, March 11, 2017

More thoughts on writing Modules (Design Post) - Part 1

I have been busy. Very busy. So busy, indeed, that my brain denied any kind of after-work activity for the last couple of weeks. Thus the neglecting of the blog. Sorry about that. It'll pass, as it always does ... When I have the time and the capacity right now, I push forward with Monkey Business instead of being productive here. So there's that, too. But it overlaps with things I want to write about here, so please consider my thoughts about the process of writing a module. It turned out a bit rambling ...


Let's start with that. Who do you write for? Yourself? People aiming to DM it? Previewers? Do you write it for use at the table or for those reading stuff like that for leisure (I mean, let's be real, the majority of us read rpg material for leisure, not to actually use it!). There are debates about this. Not enough public debates, but they are there ... 

A closer look, then: writing it for yourself seems counterintuitive at first, but so seems writing a book and that definitely happens a lot. It begs the question: what kind of medium of expression are adventure modules. For example, a guy got molested in high school and writes an adventure as part of his therapeutic process to digest the horrible experience. Sounds fair enough to me. I'd read it and I might consider playing something like that. If I think it's any good.

And that's another thing. Regardless of the intention behind the written thing, it'll always be read as potential gaming material. But context does matter (see example above), it's just barely talked about because, let's face it, most publications that cost you a pretty penny are written to serve a market. And if you write it with the market in mind you'll most certainly have other priorities than the potential DM that bought it.

A hug is a hug, right? [source]
So although you always somehow talk to the DM reading it to use it, you'll most likely focus on the dressing. Nice pictures, professional layout, good "social media marketing" ... the works. Of course we do have phenomena like famous authors or quality publishers, but you'll have more than enough material just going through the motions, coming, so to say, from the other side of the spectrum, achieving much of the same. Go to drivethru and wade through the heaps of material on there for sale.

That's not saying there isn't any good material, that's saying there is not much culture about it other than that of selling stuff. And if you are sitting there right now, huffing and puffing about that "culture" comment, I'd like to ask you why you can find all kinds of books in book stores but no rpg books among them (and I worked in a book store for years, so I'd know).

Really, people don't realize the mass of different and weird books that will find their way into shelves of book stores. Or local libraries, for that matter. At least in Germany that's to a huge degree because books are considered a part of our culture and need to be protected so that all kinds of niche titles get a good chance and an audience.

There is a reason for rpg books not being part of this, and it's not about "not being mainstream enough". It's about rpgs being a product most and for all. Articles of consumption, not a new kind of medium on par with books or movies.

Consider this: imagine a rpg module written by a famous fantasy or science fiction author.

Why not use that? [source]
I know many of them actually play, but again, to get real authors (or artists in general) to put work into something like this is really, really rare (Lamentations of the Flame Princess is the only label I'm aware of that actually put some real effort into the idea ...). Here's another thought, say an author you like actually did write a module or offer his writing for it, would you actually care much about the form?

As it is, I'd say lots of stuff gets written for those previewing modules in public or those taking a quick look at it, deciding if it's worth their time on a whim. There's nothing strange about that and there is the collector aspect of the hobbyist. RPG books can be art in that regard and worth collecting.

But it's more like having an expensive picture or vase or whatever and not so much about the content, isn't it? I mean, I love expensive books and totally get the appeal of something like the Quran written on silk sheets or the Lord of the Rings trilogy signed and illustrated by the author, in hard cover, with his hand written notes and all bells and whistles you'd imagine ... I totally get it. But when reading them, I have a totally different set of expectations on books.

That's just it, when we talk about content and tone, we enter a totally different realm of expectations. And in a way, we have two different phases here. The first is triggering the imagination of a potential reader to an extent that allows him to carry that into his game as Phase 2 and unfold it in his own narrative with his group.

It's not even that much about usability, it's about tone. I think a good tone for this kind of thing is a conversational one. A dialogue, if you will, between writer and reader. It's nothing new, of course, but the reason for this being nothing new, is, that it works. Why not give the reader of a module the reading experience? And I'm not talking technical-manual-reading, but opening realms of imagination instead. I always hated reading old TSR modules for exactly that reason: they denied me the reading experience. I, as a DM, wanted to experience the adventure before DMing it.

So much about tone

Yeah, great idea, let's start another series :P But as I wrote in the beginning, I'm pretty stressed out right now and this is all I got in me for today. I have at least on more post about how modules aren't books and how rpg systems figure into that and one about the idea of play-testing while writing (which all might end up being in one post, I think).

This is not complete or by any means the only way to write a module, but I hope it gave you some ideas about what decisions I had to make when writing Monkey Business (which will be out soon-ish ... I'm working on it!). I know it's a bit controversial to claim RPGs as media in there own right, especially if seen from a marketing perspective and I hope I could give you guys some ideas why I think it's at least a topic worth considering.

Comments and thoughts about this are, as always, very welcome.

And enjoy your weekend, guys ... [source]


  1. I always like the advertising blurb on the back of The Yellow Clearance Black Box Blues for Paranoia.

    A new standard of excellence in role-playing adventures!

    We got a REAL WRITER to compose this adventure: John M. Ford, winner of the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel and author of several REAL BOOKS. And a guy who hands in a 120 page manuscript with only one misspelled word. See? A REAL GENIUS. (And he is even funnier than us famous game designers.)

    We can't tell you what this adventure is about (except that lots of confused and desperate people are killing each other over a mysterious black box), but we can tell you what it (the adventure, not the box), contains:


    Needless to say, the author was an automatic selling point for anyone that knew of him. Although I should point out though that the adventure is almost unplayable because the gamemaster is usually laughing so hard at the in-jokes contained within the adventure, but considering that it is Paranoia this is probably all for the better.

    ["Mike" was better known (in RPG circles) for his Traveller stuff (where he could make a player so depressed about making it through the bureaucracy of the starport that they would commit suicide, and were a mercenary ticket might be being security for the sector's GREATEST rock band Positive Veedback), and for his work on Klingons for FASA's Star Trek RPG (and whose official Star Trek novels have been disavowed by Paramount in the strongest possible terms.]

    1. Nice! That sounds like something I should hunt down. Seriously :)

  2. Last night I was re-reading the old Gamma World module Famine in Fargo, and as much fun as I had playing it as a kid - wow - it really sucks to read. They did not know what they were doing back then. Or worse, they truly thought they did but didn't.

    Tone? I think the proper tone for a module is one of collusion. Its you and the GM and quietly whispering about all the great or at least interesting things the module is set up to do, about how the players may take it, and what is the best way to put it forth at the table. This is why I actually like text boxes. I know a lot of people hate them, but yeah, when a module provides a boxed description for each and every closet in the castle it is going to get tedious. Instead, a good text box should almost (and I would never call it this in public but) be like poetry. It should be different, outlandish, extra-ordinary writing. Modules truly are their own form of writing, and when well-done I don't see why they can't be great.

    Why don't more established authors write gaming material? Fear. Plain and simple. They're afraid to, afraid it won't make enough money, afraid it will alienate their audiences. I'm not criticizing them, it's just the nature of the business. Until someone makes a movie of one of your books, no one is quite as disposable as an author. I've known many, gamed with a few and it's not uncommon to run into someone of stellar talent who plays D&D, reads fantasy novels for fun, and yet writes and tries to publish nothing but serious lit so boring it will make your eyes bleed. They're afraid. Plain and simple.

    1. "I think the proper tone for a module is one of collusion. Its you and the GM and quietly whispering about all the great or at least interesting things the module is set up to do, about how the players may take it, and what is the best way to put it forth at the table."

      Thanks, JD! You nailed it. Don't know if you are right about the authors, though. It might be part of it. Another part would be lack of trying on the publisher end of the spectrum to activate those renown authors who are already one foot into the hobby, for instance. Maybe they are all terribly busy ...

  3. I think that one of the best introductions was done for the Spelljammer boxset, when the designer told you the story of how the product came about. I always wondered why they didn't do that more often.

    As far as professional writers trying their hand at writing modules; its been my experience that they were usually terrible. They tended to be finished products, which is not what I want.

    Leisure reading game reference material? Surely this HAS to be an idiosyncrasy unique to Game Masters. I can't even get my players to read an online article, never the less a whole book.